2013 06 06 GDN Holder ducks NSA phone record questions in Senate hearing – as it happened | World news | guardian.co.uk
Please activate cookies in order to turn autoplay off
- Jump to content [s]
- Jump to comments [c]
- Jump to site navigation 
- Jump to search 
- Terms and conditions 
Printing sponsored by:
- Life & style
Holder ducks NSA phone record questions in Senate hearing – as it happened
• Attorney general testifies in Capitol Hill budget hearing
• ‘I don’t think this is an appropriate setting’ to talk spying
• Intelligence chair says program needed to keep US safe
US attorney general Eric Holder arrives for testimony before the Senate appropriations committee on Thursday. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images
- Latest first
- Oldest first
Welcome to our live blog coverage of Attorney General Eric Holder’s appearance before the Senate appropriations subcommittee, where he is scheduled to testify about the Justice Department’s budget for the 2014 fiscal year.
The first questions for Holder, however, are likely to focus on the revelation this morning that the Obama administration is conducting catch-all surveillance of millions of Americans pursuant to a top-secret court order obtained and published by the Guardian Wednesday. Under the auspices of the Patriot Act, the order requires that a division of Verizon turn over phone records for communications inside the US and between the US and foreign countries during the period of 25 April through 19 July 2013.
Holder is embattled on a number of fronts. He is also likely to face questions about his department’s broad seizure of Associated Press phone records as part of a leak investigation and about the targeting by the Internal Revenue Service of conservative groups, activity the justice department has been investigating. Our Washington bureau chief, Dan Roberts, is there.
Updated at 10.24am ET
The department of justice is “likely” to open a leak investigation to try to find out how the top-secret court order harvesting Verizon records was obtained by the Guardian, according to NBC News correspondent Pete Williams.
Williams, who has a strong track record of reporting on federal law enforcement, said on NBC’s Morning Joe that the investigation will happen. ““I was told last night: definitely there will be a leak investigation,” Williams said. The Huffington Post reports that Williams later “slightly walked back” that assertion:
“It seems highly likely this will trigger a leak investigation,” he told host Chuck Todd.
While no investigation is yet underway, Williams said, “It just seems very likely, given the sensitivity of this document, that there will be one.”
Eric Holder’s justice department seized the records from more than 20 phone lines for the Associated Press and, in a separate attempt to establish the source of a leak about North Korea, seized the phone records of Fox News journalist James Rosen and his parents.
We’ll be listening this morning for any indication from Holder as to the department’s plan in the Verizon case.
Updated at 10.42am ET
The Obama administration has broadly defended the seizure of citizens’ phone records as “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States,” while declining to speak specifically to the Verizon case revealed Wednesday, the Guardian’s Dan Roberts and Spencer Ackerman report:
The White House stressed that orders such as the one disclosed by the Guardian would only cover data about the calls rather than their content. A senior administration official said: “Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counter-terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.
“As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorising intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorises such collection. There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”
Read the full report here.
A full house on Capitol Hill is waiting for members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee and witness Eric Holder to materialize in the hearings room.
Watch Holder’s testimony live on CSPAN here.
Guardian Washington correspondent Dan Roberts catches an impromptu press conference called by Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, and her Republican counterpart Saxby Chambliss.
Feinstein defended the practice of secret seizures of citizens’ phone records, Dan reports:
“This is called protecting America,” said Feinstein. “People want the homeland kept safe”
“That’s what these federal courts are for… there are 11 judges available 24 hours,” she added, in apparent reference to the FISA court that approved the phone records seizures.
Feinstein and Chambliss said they had sent a “dear colleagues” letter to other members of the committee informing them of the 25 April order to seize Verizon records, but it was not clear when the letter was sent.
Asked by the Guardian why it was necessary for the FBI to have such sweeping powers, Feinstein said it was so that they had access to the phone numbers in case they became terrorist suspects in future.
Chambliss added that the FBI were mainly interested in who might be on the end of the phones calls made from America to overseas terrorist suspects.
“Senator Diane Feinstein tells me her committee authorised sweeping FBI power in case they needed telephone numbers future,” he writes.
Feinstein went on to say she does not know how metadata of the kind collected under the Verizon court order is used. The metadata includes phone numbers, time and location of calls, call duration and other data.
Feinstein said she called the press conference without warning because they were being “stalked,” Dan reports.
Updated at 11.15am ET
The committee and the witness file into the hearings room. Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, gavels the hearing to order.
As Mikulski reads an opening statement, focusing on budget issues facing the justice department, here’s more from Dan Roberts on Feinstein’s impromptu press conference:
Feinstein said she was only made aware of the Guardian report around 9.30am.
A statement from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has oversight of FBI surveillance activities, is expected later. It is understood that the chairman of Senate and House intelligence committees are briefed in private about such secret orders, but the information is not usually shared with others on the committee.
Also, to flag a portion of Feinstein’s remarks: “Asked by the Guardian why it was necessary for the FBI to have such sweeping powers,” Dan writes, “Feinstein said it was so that they had access to the phone numbers in case they became terrorist suspects in future.”
The assertion appears to be that the government is entitled to seize records of private conversations on the chance that the conversants may at some point in the future be suspected of malfeasance. That standard, while not described in its specifics by Feinstein, would seem to make any record of any conversation between anyone fair game for government seizure.
Updated at 11.21am ET
Alabaman Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican, reads his opening statement. “I would like to take a moment to thank the men and women from the department of justice who work hard to protect this country,” he says.
The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman adds background on Feinstein’s work to uphold and expand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act:
Late last year, Feinstein shepherded a Senate reauthorization of a law vastly expanding government surveillance activities inside the United States. With the support of the Obama administration, Feinstein helped quash amendments to the 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that would have required the National Security Agency to, among other things, estimate how many Americans’ communications it intercepts, something the NSA has declined to specify.
“Citizens generally assume our government is not spying on them,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told U.S. News during the December debate. “If they had any inkling of how this system really works, the details of which I cannot discuss, they would be profoundly appalled.”
Holder begins speaking. “The Department has made tremendous progress in protecting the safety, and the sacred rights, of the American people,” he says. The FY 2014 budget request “includes over $4 billion for vital national security programs – and to respond to events like the horrific terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon,” he says.
Then Holder describes his new initiatives to preserve the freedom of the press:
While the Department of Justice must not waiver in its determination to protect our national security, we must be just as vigilant in our defense of the sacred rights and freedoms we are equally obligated to protect, including the freedom of the press. In order to ensure the appropriate balance in these efforts, at President Obama’s direction, I have launched a review of existing Justice Department guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters. Last week, I convened the first in a series of meetings – with representatives of news organizations, government agencies, and other groups – to discuss the need to strike this important balance, ensure robust First Amendment protections, and foster constructive dialogue. I appreciate the opportunity to engage members of the media and national security professionals in this effort to improve our guidelines, policies and processes – and to renew the important conversation, that is as old as our Republic, about how to balance our security with our dearest civil liberties
As part of that conversation, let me make several things clear. First, the Department’s goal in investigating leak cases is to identify and prosecute government officials who jeopardize national security by violating their oaths, not to target members of the press or discourage them from carrying out their vital work. Second, the Department has not prosecuted, and as long as I’m Attorney General, will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job. With these guiding principles in mind, we are updating our internal guidelines to ensure that in every case the Department’s actions are clear and consistent with our most sacred values.
A copy of Holder’s remarks is here.
Holder breaks down the budget request, which totals $27.6 bn:
-$6.9bn for prisons
-over $4 billion for vital national security programs
-$2.3 billion for state, local, and tribal assistance programs
-$395m to prevent gun violence
– $93 million to address cyber security needs
-other, smaller chunks detailed here.
Mikulski’s first question is whether the $6.9bn for prisons is enough to care properly for the 224,000 federal prisoners and ensure the safety of guards. “We have legal and ethical standards for the care of prisoners,” she says.No mention yet of the department’s court-ordered seizure of citizen’s phone records.
Shelby mentions the AP phone record seizures but not the Verizon seizures. Then he says that Holder is a controversial figure and he asks him to self-evaluate. Shelby suggests that Holder may have to resign. “What’s the tipping point here, are you going to clear up this controversy?” he asks.
“The tipping point might be fatigue. You get to a point where you might just be tired,” Holder says. “When I get to the point that I’ve accomplished all the goals that I’ve set.. I’ll sit down with the president and we’ll talk about a new attorney general,” he says.
He says he would give himself passing, but not perfect, marks.
Feinstein is up. She tells Holder she believes in his integrity and thinks he’s a good attorney general. “I think you have responded the best as you could,” to controversies, she says.
Then she asks a question about money laundering connected to drug trafficking and the failure of banks to comply with money laundering laws.
Sen Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, says “we’ve all read this morning about the controversy of the NSA” having power to collect phone records. But she mentions the controversy only in passing.
Her question is about drone killing. She says she doesn’t like it that the president can kill whomever he wants.
“It seems to me that an American receives a greater degree of due process if the government is seeking to listen in on phone conversations… than if the president is seeking to take his life,” Collins says.
Holder says the president does not have unlimited authority. He says “we try to operate” under the rule of law.
After one hour, a question about the revelation that the government is spying on potentially tens of millions of American citizens as a matter of course.
Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, asks Holder if he can assure the committee that “no phones in the capitol were monitored that would give a future administration” leverage over any members of Congress.
The question is: Did you spy on US?
“I don’t think this is an appropriate setting for me to discuss that issue,” Holder says.
Kirk objects. “The correct answer is no,” he says.
Mikulski jumps in. “When I read the NYT this morning, I was like, oh God not one more thing… I think the full Senate needs to get a briefing on this.”
Holder says that members of Congress have been “fully briefed” on the NSA spying program.
Mikulski objects to what she characterizes as this “fully briefed” bushwa.
“This fully briefed is something that drives us up the wall. Because it means a group of eight leadership,” not the relevant committees,” she says.
Shelby says the appropriations committee can rightly get into government spying issues.
“If we don’t know… we’re not doing our oversight,” Shelby says.
The committee determines that Holder will give a future, classified briefing to the full committee.
“Whoever runs this program knows they screwed up,” Kirk says. He asks Holder to seize all the relevant records immediately to make sure bureaucrats “haven’t accidentally monitored other branches of the government.”
“I’d be more than glad to discuss this in an appropriate setting,” Holder says.
Republican of South Carolina Lindsey Graham heartily welcomes the news of the new government spying.
“I’m a Verizon customer,” Graham says. “It doesn’t bother me one bit for the NSA to have my phone number.”
“You keep up what you’re doing, and if you’ve gone outside the lane, you fix it. President Bush started it, President Obama continued it and we need it, from my point of view,” he says.
Politico obtains an internal Verizon memo addressing the court order without acknowledging its existence. The memo came from General Counsel Randy Milch:
“You may have seen stories in the news about a top secret order Verizon allegedly received to produce certain calling information to the U.S. Government,” Verizon’s Milch wrote. “We have no comment on the accuracy of The Guardian newspaper story or the documents referenced, but a few items in these stories are important. The alleged court order that The Guardian published on its website contains language that: compels Verizon to respond; forbids Verizon from revealing the order’s existence; and excludes from production the ‘content of any communication … or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer.’”
The memo also states that Verizon takes measures to protect customers’ privacy, but if the company “were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply.”
That’s all for Holder. “I’d like to thank you until we meet again in the matter we’ve discussed,” Mikulski tells him.
Holder’s most substantive reply to the disclosure of the court-ordered phone records harvesting:
I’d be more than glad to discuss this in an appropriate setting.
Now Mikulski calls DOJ inspector general Michael Horowitz.
Despite Guardian Washington bureau chief Dan Roberts’ admirable effort, Eric Holder did not take questions upon leaving this morning’s hearing.
Members of Congress advise that the collection of all Verizon metadata is no big deal because it’s been going on for years without anyone knowing. Dan Roberts and Spencer Ackerman report:
The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, said on Thursday she believed a court order compelling Verizon to hand over call data relating to millions of Americans had been in place since 2006.
Feinstein said she believed the order had been in place for some time. She said: “As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the [foreign intelligence surveillance] court under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress.”
“This has been going on for seven years,” [Senate intelligence committee ranking Republican Saxby] Chambliss said. “Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this. To my knowledge there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint. It has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.”
Read the full piece here.
We’re going to wrap up our live blog coverage of attorney general Eric Holder’s appearance this morning on Capitol Hill. Here’s a summary of where things stand:
• Both committee members and Holder steered away from addressing the news of Wednesday night that the government is harvesting the phone records of millions of Americans as a matter of course.
• When the issue did come up, Holder said the hearing was not an appropriate place to talk about it but he’d be happy to do that at some other time and place. The committee agreed to schedule a confidential briefing.
• Senators alternately voiced concern about the program and support for it. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois sought assurance that the Obama administration was not spying on Congress, which he did not get to his satisfaction. Senator Lindsey Graham congratulated Holder on running an effective spying program and encouraged him to keep it up.
• Holder said he is concerned about protecting press freedoms and vowed not to prosecute journalists. “The Department has not prosecuted, and as long as I’m Attorney General, will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job,” Holder said.
• Holder also outlined the department of justice’s FY 2014 budget request, which totals $27.6 bn and includes $6.9bn for prisons and more than $4 billion for national security programs.
• Separately, senators Feinstein and Chambliss said they understood the Verizon records harvesting to be merely an extension of a program that has gone on continuously for the last seven years.
6 Jun 2013
Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein says order was necessary to protect America and ‘keep the homeland safe’
- 6 Jun 2013
- 6 Jun 2013
- 29 May 2013
20 May 2013
Justice Department’s inspector general says evidence points to retaliation as Dennis Burke’s motivation for alleged leak
On the Guardian today
- World news
- World news
- Life and style
- World news
- World news
Today’s best video
Charles Arthur compares two of the most popular new smartphones: the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4
Michael Fordham travels from San Francisco to LA lapping up American surf culture
Jess Cartner-Morley picks out some Gatsby-esque gems from the high street
New Chelsea manager criticises Ronaldo
Guardian US on Twitter
The latest news and comment from our team of reporters, writers and editors in the US
Auto update every minute On | Off
- moorehn: Wrote this from my heart. RT @jeffmarmins Price-gouging cable companies are our latter-day robber barons – yes! http://t.co/tPK11bWfo2
- mattseaton: 45 years after his tragic assassination, time to see the real RFK behind the Bobby Kennedy myth, writes @speechboy71: http://t.co/UeiORhn9sr
- MartinPengelly: NSA collection of Verizon phone records sparks angry reaction http://t.co/MJsuGci4ZW via @GuardianUS