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House Mulls NSA Restrictions in Collecting Metadata

by Richard Sisk on July 24, 2013

Gen AlexanderArmy Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, has an astronomically higher batting average than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Stan “The Man” Musial and other baseball greats when it comes to getting what he wants from the secret watchdog court on intelligence.

The observation by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. reflected the general mood of a loose coalition of lawmakers in the House who used the opening of debate Tuesday on the defense appropriations bill to consider proposals to rein in the NSA’s ability to scoop up metadata.

Jeffries and others on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about what they call the “rubber stamp” approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, for requests from the NSA and the FBI to monitor phone and Internet data.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Jeffries told witnesses from the NSA and the office of retired Air Force Gen. James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, that since 1979 the FISA court had received 33,949 applications for surveillance. Of that total, 490 were modified by the Court, and only 11 were rejected, Jeffries said.

“Your batting average is higher than 99 percent,” Jeffries said. Robert Litt, chief counsel to Clapper, seemed slightly annoyed with the baseball analogy to spycraft and counter-intelligence work. “We’re not exactly talking about baseball here,” Litt said.

To underline his point, Litt, used his own baseball analogy. He said that when the NSA makes a pitch to the FISA court, the judges will often tell the NSA to “throw the pitch a little higher” or wider to meet the guidelines of the law.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole tried another analogy to justify broad sweeps of phone and web data.

“If you’re looking for the needle in the haystack, you have to have the entire haystack,” Cole said.

The House renewed interest in the activities of the NSA and the FISA court in the uproar over the leaks from contractor Edward Snowden, now at a Moscow airport on the run from an espionage warrant, on the massive amounts of data collected by the NSA.

An amendment to the defense appropriations bill offered by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., would scrap the NSA’s authority to scoop up records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act on individuals who are not the specific targets of an investigation. A vote on the Amash amendment was expected later this week.

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