This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON -- The extent of phone and internet information collected by intelligence agencies is "troublesome" and should be debated, says U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who had been briefed on such activities as a longtime member of congressional intelligence panels.
"I actually am concerned by the volume of records the federal government is keeping and future potential uses for those records," Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters Wednesday.
The Missouri senator also accused President Barack Obama's administration of going beyond its predecessor in authorizing such records collection as well as the use of drones for targeted strikes against terror suspects.
Blunt added that he was "particularly concerned" about a statement this year by James Clapper, director of national intelligence, "that we weren't collecting information on Americans. I don't know how he can possibly defend that, based on what he knew at the time he gave that answer."
Blunt apparently was referring to a March 12 congressional hearing, during which U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. -- a persistent critic of massive data collection by the National Security Agency (NSA) -- asked for a "yes or no answer" to the question: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
After initially responding "No, sir," Clapper clarified: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could perhaps inadvertently collect, but not wittingly."
In a "Fact Checker" column, the Washington Post gave that response a "three Pinocchio" rating for its relative accuracy, with five Pinocchios being the least truthful rating. News reports say the NSA has been collecting and storing data from U.S. phone records and also -- through the PRISM program authorized by federal judges under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) -- gaining access to digital data from major internet companies.
In remarks Friday, Obama said he welcomed a debate on the issue but contended that critics of the NSA surveillance are exaggerating its impact on Americans. "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama said, adding that members of the Senate and House intelligence panels had been briefed about the programs and had not tried to stop them.
"You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. "We’re going to have to make some choices as a society."
While lawmakers acknowledge the need for limited surveillance in the effort to deter terrorism, some Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress have expressed concerns about the extent of data collection and storage.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called for a new round of debate over government surveillance.
"For over a decade, we’ve debated how best to protect America from terrorism while preserving the most basic constitutional rights," Durbin said, adding that he had pushed for legislation -- including a failed amendment to the Patriot Act reauthorization in 2009 -- "to ensure that secret demands for sensitive personal information on Americans be limited only to those with some connection to individuals suspected of being involved in plots against our country.
"As I said when I offered my amendment in 2009, ‘someday the cloak will be lifted and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society – transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution,'" Durbin said, adding that "that cloak has been lifted and this important debate must begin again."
At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday with the NSA Director, Gen. Keith Alexander, Durbin expressed concerns over the use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the senator said has been used to obtain the phone records and other personal data of many Americans. Durbin said the number of Section 215 orders had increased last year to 212, up from 21 such orders in 2009.
"I want to ensure that the government can obtain the useful information we need to stay safe, but still protect the privacy of innocent Americans," Durbin said.
In his testimony, Alexander said the agency's electronic surveillance programs had helped thwart dozens of potential terrorist attacks. "I think that what we're doing to protect American citizens is the right thing," he told senators.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, "We need to make sure our intelligence agencies have the tools necessary to go after terrorists and keep America safe – but those tools must be consistent with American values. Congress has been clear that all intelligence-gathering activities must be done within the constraints of the law."
On Wednesday, Blunt conceded that he "was on the Intelligence committee for a long time and have been pretty well updated on this program over time." (He served on the House intelligence panel for several years and later on the Senate Intelligence Committee for two years, leaving in January.) But he said he worries about how many records are being stored and how they might be used in the future.
"One of my concerns is: If you have everything, it's almost like you don't have anything," Blunt said. "You've got so many records that the only way you are ever likely to use them is in the rear view mirror, trying to reconstruct what happened after you have come upon the other facts," such as in the investigation following the Boston Marathon bombing.
"I suppose we could go back now and find out every call that was made on every phone we think they might have used, and that might lead somewhere. But in all likelihood, that effort has moved on, and you're not going to stop anything."
Blunt said he still supports FISA provisions that authorize "listening to specific conversations and following specific emails based on a court order." He said such surveillance "clearly prevented some bad things from happening.
"But this mass collection of information, and then retaining that information, I think is legitimately troublesome," Blunt said. "And I'm not sure it's all that beneficial."
While Blunt said "there's a definite role for Congress here," he also called on Obama "to explain how the need to collect all these records to prevent terrorism balances out with his comments, only a couple of weeks ago, that we've moved beyond the post-9/11 terror threat."
The senator added: "I think the inconsistency of the president -- saying 'I welcome this debate but I wish nobody knew about it' -- is very hard to rationalize if you are paying attention to this."