The NSA has refused to confirm or deny that it is collecting information on the communications and email activities of members of Congress after being questioned directly by Bernie Sanders, one of two of the Senate's only independents*.
"Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other America elected officials?" Sanders wrote in a letter published on Friday to General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, chief of the Central Security Service (CHCSS), and commander of the United States Cyber Command.
"'Spying' would include gathering metadata on calls made on official of personal phones, content from website visited or emails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business," the letter states
Sanders said he was writing the letter in light of the information, released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, that the agency had been monitoring the communications of foreign leaders and US allies. The senator said that while he recognized there was a legitimate need to stop terrorism, it is important that constitutional rights aren't being broken.
The NSA's response was hardly reassuring.
"NSA's authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons," the agency said in a statement. "Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June."
It's not the first time elected officials have expressed concern that the NSA night be watching them. Back in 1995 former representative Michael Barnes (D-MD) claimed that the NSA had been monitoring his communications in 1983 after he questioned the Reagan administration's stance on Nicaragua.
"Reporters told me right-wingers were circulating excerpts from phone conversations I'd had," he told the Baltimore Sun. He claimed that William Casey, the then director of the CIA, suggested he fire one of his aides, showing him a Nicaraguan Embassy cable detailing meetings they had had with the staffer – a suggestion Barnes refused.
More recently Russell Tice, another NSA staffer who went public about what he saw as abuses by intelligence services, said that in 2004 the agency was monitoring the communications of a senator from Illinois, to wit one Barack Obama, who has since gone on to greater things.
The NSA has said it is looking into the questions raised in Senator Sanders' letter and will get back to him, but based on past form, the answer may need careful interpretation.
In March James Clapper, the head of the National Intelligence Agency, was asked in Congressional hearings if the intelligence services were collecting large amounts of information on American citizens. He replied "No," although after Snowden started to leak documents showing that this had occurred Clapper said that it depended on how you define the word "collect". ®
* Sanders represents Vermont, while the second indie senator, Angus king, stands for Maine.