WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency's massive collection of all Americans' phone records breaks laws without making the country safer, two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee argued Tuesday night, saying the practices must be reformed.
Taking to the Senate floor, Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called on the White House to act on its own to rein in the programs. The senators criticized the administration's intelligence leaders for "misleading" the public on the controversial NSA programs and accused the administration of breaking the law.
The outlines of the surveillance programs had been disclosed before, but NSA leaker Edward Snowden revealed their stunning sweep when he released reams of material earlier this year. The documents Snowden disclosed highlight the Patriot Act's Section 215 that allows the government to collect phone records and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows government cyber-spying on overseas targets.
Wyden said he knew of at least one violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment under the 702 program. He said that based on a letter from NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander, the government committed several violations of the Patriot Act in gathering phone records.
"I'm not allowed to discuss the classified nature of that, but I want to make sure that those who are following this debate know that from my vantage point, reading those documents that are classified, these violations are more serious than have been stated by the intelligence community, and mind you, are very troubling," Wyden said.
The so-called metadata records of all Americans' phone calls are captured and stored for five years by the NSA, the agency has revealed.
Wyden and Udall have proposed legislation to curb the agency's access to all that data. Both argued that they are disturbed by what they described as dissembling by intelligence officials about the effectiveness of the surveillance, particularly the phone data sweeps. Alexander and other members of the administration have claimed some 54 terror plots (although they have revealed only four in detail) were disrupted by the two programs.
"The bulk phone records collection program alone played little or no role in disrupting terrorism plots," Udall said. "I say this as someone who has been fully briefed on these terror-related events. Nor has it been demonstrated that this program even provides any uniquely valuable intelligence."
Udall and Wyden said they took issue with suggestions by Alexander and others that the phone data was acutely important. The senators said the overseas surveillance -- which both would like to reform, not end -- has been much more significant.
"Leaders in the intelligence community have made misleading statements repeatedly," said Wyden. "It's not just a question of keeping the American people in the dark ... which was true. But the American people were actively misled on a number of occasions."
Both lawmakers said phone records should be removed from government control, and left with phone companies. They argued that the 300 or so times that the NSA says it has needed to search the records could have been easily handled without the government controlling so much private data.
"I have yet to see any convincing reason why agencies investigating terrorism cannot simply obtain information directly from phone companies using a regular court order," Udall said. Alexander has argued that it is much faster for the NSA to pursue leads when it possesses the data.
"Convenience alone cannot justify the collection of the personal information of millions of innocent, ordinary, law-abiding Americans, especially when the same information can be obtained using less intrusive methods," Udall said.
The senators' efforts have only modest support in the Senate. A measure to curb the phone data collection narrowly failed in the House last week, however. Udall said American sentiment was turning, and indeed, a recent poll found for the first time that people's concerns about government intrusion on civil liberties is exceeding their worry that the government is not doing enough to stop terror attacks.
"Although the legislation didn't pass, the American people are demanding action, and those who share our concerns are on the march," Udall said. "It's just common sense that our law enforcement agencies should have a reason to suspect a connection between the records they are seeking and a terrorism or espionage investigation before using these broad authorities."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.