WASHINGTON — National security programs that collect phone and Internet data are legal, and the country is significantly more vulnerable to attack since the programs were exposed, Sen. Tom Coburn said Tuesday.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Americans would be proud and amazed by the work being done by the National Security Administration and would have no concerns that their civil liberties were being violated.
The NSA, he said, “is one of the few areas where the government does it right — it has great leadership and great internal controls.”
Moreover, he said, the congressional intelligence committees conduct rigorous oversight of the nation's spy work to ensure it's done within the parameters of the law.
Coburn's comments are significant because of his reputation as an absolutist when it comes to the U.S. Constitution — he carries a copy in his pocket and quotes from it regularly — and because of his oft-stated distrust of the government.
“Nobody protects the Bill of Rights more than I do,” Coburn said in an interview.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has questioned the legality of the data collection programs, is “spouting nothing but lies,” Coburn said.
Paul has called the collection of phone records from Verizon “an outrageous abuse of power and a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.”
In a column in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Paul said, “Our lives are now so digitized that the government going from computer to computer or phone to phone is the modern equivalent of the same type of tyranny that our Founders rebelled against.”
Paul, whose office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, is just one of many critics of the programs.
The ACLU filed a constitutional challenge Tuesday to the collection of phone records.
“This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director.
“It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call and the length of every conversation. The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy.”
Coburn said the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that information about phone calls made from one number to another — the kind of records that phone companies send to customers in billing statements — is not protected from scrutiny by law enforcement.
Intelligence agencies need that data to connect the dots and they need to get it en masse because the phone carriers destroy it after a certain amount of time, Coburn said. If the intelligence agencies want to pursue more specific information, he said, they have to get a warrant and show other information to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court about their suspicions, he said.
The programs have stopped numerous terrorist acts, Coburn said, and the exposure in the past week will allow terrorists to change the way they communicate to avoid detection.
“Here's the option: lots more successful attacks, not just here but around the world,” Coburn said.
Coburn acknowledged the legitimacy of fears that revelations last week about data collection may only be the tip of the iceberg and that government agencies may not always adhere to the law or the U.S. Constitution.
Still, he said, the surveillance systems used by the intelligence agencies require constant oversight by the FISA court.