Sen. Leahy Looking for Answers on NSA Operations

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont questions the legality of reported efforts to collect domestic phone call data. Leahy, the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, tells John Ydstie that the news — if true — is the latest example of a White House pursuing policies without proper Congressional oversight.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Senator Patrick Leahy is the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Yesterday, I asked him whether he had any prior knowledge of the NSA program to collect data on domestic phone calls.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I knew nothing about it until I saw the story. I've talked to a number of people today; I've not found anybody, including people on the Intelligence Committee, who were aware of this going on.

YDSTIE: Including Republicans?

Sen. LEAHY: Including Republicans.

YDSTIE: In your view, is this program legal?

Sen. LEAHY: I can't think under any form under which it would be legal. In fact, Quest telephone service refused to cooperate. They obviously felt that if you want to do this, then go through proper channels. But until we know exactly what they were doing, you can't make a definitive answer on the legality; but certainly one of the telephone companies that looked at it said no because obviously they didn't feel it was legal.

YDSTIE: You are calling for the CEO's of these telecommunications companies to appear before the Judiciary Committee. What exactly do you want to know from them?

Sen. LEAHY: Well I want to know just what are they doing. I mean how much data mining is involved in this? And secondly, did anybody suggest there was any legal reason for the administration to do this? And third, if somebody did say they had legal reason, who was it, and what did they say?

YDSTIE: What concerns do you have about the potential dangers of the program?

Sen. LEAHY: I'm afraid that we're getting into a form of data mining where my records, your records, everything else are going to be in huge data banks. They'll add to that medical records. They'll add to all these other things. Two things can happen. One, they can lose control of the records. Secondly, when they make mistakes, you're never going to know why. It doesn't make Americans any safer to have this intrusive investigation of everything they do. We do have laws in this country. We don't allow warrant-less searches. We don't allow data mining on Americans.

YDSTIE: Now on the other hand, data mining is a very widely accepted commercial practice. You have companies mining data every day.

Sen. LEAHY: You don't have companies going in and reading your emails, listening to your phone calls, and possibly opening your mail.

YDSTIE: Now, now the story says that they are not reading emails, and they're not listening to phone calls.

Sen. LEAHY: And the last time we asked them, they said they weren't doing what is now in the press they were doing. What I'm saying is let's find out exactly what they are doing. Sure, companies keep records, but that's because you've been asked. Do you want to fill this out? Do you want to answer these questions? What I don't want is somebody finding out what phone calls I'm making to whom, and when. That's none of their business.

YDSTIE: Can members of Congress such as yourself who are concerned about these activities take strong action if the public supports what the administration is doing?

Sen. LEAHY: Well I think that what we have done is actually start doing oversight. The Republican controlled Congress has refused to do any real oversight. You know it's enough to say well we're wiretapping everybody, we're keeping you safe. That doesn't keep you safe. Having--developing real intelligence, keeping to the goal of catching Osama bin Laden and those around him, that might keep us safe. There is nothing we can do here in the United States to counter the threat from terrorism from outside our country. It's nothing you can do on a go it alone, it's something that requires a great deal of cooperation. We ought to start rebuilding our image with other nations and working on that cooperation.

YDSTIE: How do you think this is going to affect General Hayden's prospects for confirmation as the new CIA director? He was the former head of the NSA?

Sen. LEAHY: Yeah. I'm, I think though General Hayden probably is feeling very uncomfortable at the moment. And that's why he canceled his meetings even with Republican senators. But this is something that comes out of the White House. I don't want to see more people, more firings of scapegoats. I want somebody to answer at the level where the decisions are made.

YDSTIE: Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Thanks very much, Senator.

Sen. LEAHY: Thank you. Good to be with you John.

YDSTIE: You can read more about the NSA's domestic eavesdropping program and why it's controversial at npr.org.

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