Senator: NSA Program Expanded Beyond Original Vision

Melissa Block talks to Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska. He's a co-sponsor of a bill which would require the government to reveal its collection of Verizon phone records and the PRISM Internet data-mining program.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Earlier this afternoon, I spoke with Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, before he headed into the briefing that Ailsa was talking about. I asked him what questions he wanted answered.

SENATOR MARK BEGICH: How does the process work? Does the court system just rubber-stamp the kind of requests that are coming forward? It's clear to me, and more and more daily, that the expansion of this program has been pretty significant. I'm concerned now they have expanded beyond maybe what the original bill had said. And, of course, the revisions of this bill and the updates on the bill, I have voted against because of this concern. And now, it's become apparent that these concerns are probably valid.

BLOCK: Aren't the aggregate numbers from the FISA court given to Congress every year? And they detail exactly how many measures have been approved, how many have been modified over the years.

BEGICH: Right, but also, it's not clear, for example - I want to make - I want to hear it - and that is because it's - by those reports, it doesn't look like they have rejected any requests.

BLOCK: But they've modified them. They've had the administration change the parameters.

BEGICH: Yeah, but what does that mean? You know what I mean? The words saying that they could have modified it to just meet a certain need, and at the end of the day they still are expanding the definition of what the law intended. And that's what I need to understand is have they gone beyond what the law's intent was?

But at the same time, the public really deserves an understanding of the process, not just to us, 100 U.S. senators, or even just the Intelligence Committee, which is really the one that gets more briefed on this. We should understand how they're going about this in a little more depth. It does not mean they have to give up their positions of security. We just need to make sure and find the right balance between security and privacy.

BLOCK: Senator Begich, when Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act, did it, in effect, authorized data collection like this?

BEGICH: I didn't vote for it.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, but Congress did. It did pass Congress.

BEGICH: Yeah, well, I disagreed and I felt like it would go beyond where I think the public viewed this legislation.

BLOCK: The head of NSA, Keith Alexander, told the Senate yesterday that dozens of terrorist events were thwarted because of NSA surveillance. Does that argument sway you in any way?

BEGICH: Well, I guess, you know, I'd want to know - as you remember some of the questions that came in from the panel, he couldn't answer them because they had to be in a confidential setting. And he even noted that maybe there's some information that could become more public and transparent, which is exactly what we want to know because I think more people want to understand how this process works.

I can't tell you if that one single - and I don't think he said that that one single act of a phone tap thwarted that terrorist act. He said they thwarted dozens of terrorist potential attacks, but that was through multiple means. It wasn't just this issue. So I want to see how much this weighs in. But even he noted yesterday that they should review and maybe there's additional information that would be public.

And that's what I'm looking for is what's the right balance here between privacy and protecting an important part of what makes our country great, at the same time recognizing we do have security risks that we have to deal with and creating that right balance. And I think he even was starting to lean in to say those comments in his testimony.

BLOCK: Senator Begich, I want to play you a bit of an exchange from a Senate hearing in March. This was a question posed to the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, by your fellow Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SENATOR RON WYDEN: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

JAMES CLAPPER: No, sir.

WYDEN: It does not.

CLAPPER: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.

BLOCK: And later, Mr. Clapper said that he responded in the most truthful or at least - or the least untruthful manner. He also said his answer was too cute by half, this past weekend. Others have said he was lying to Congress and he should be fired. What's your take on what Mr. Clapper said?

BEGICH: Well, I think, you know, that's what I worry about - just that kind of statement. They are too - they parse their words. And what he should have said is if he felt that was a risk to public security, to be able to answer that question publicly, he should've said that. And I think the president should take into account anyone who misleads Congress in any form and take that as a serious situation and one that he should respond to.

Now, I will leave it to the president to make the decision of who he keeps. But I'll tell you, the credibility of the individual drops rapidly when, you know, he parse his words and later says, well, maybe I wasn't as truthful as I should've been. Well, that's a problem.

BLOCK: Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska. Senator Begich, thanks for your time.

BEGICH: Thank you. Have a great day.

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