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Reps. Conyers & Massie on Bipartisan Campaign Against NSA Spying; Call for James Clapper to Resign

StoryAugust 02, 2013
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A bipartisan coalition against domestic surveillance is growing stronger in Washington. Last week, the House nearly passed a measure that would have prevented the National Security Agency from using the USA PATRIOT Act to collect phone records of individuals who are not under investigation. The measure failed by a narrow 217-to-205 margin. We speak to two key backers of the amendment: Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky). "It was a signal that even in the partisanship that goes on too much around here there are people willing to say, 'Enough is enough. The PATRIOT Act isn't being followed,’" Conyers says. Massie also praised NSA leaker Edward Snowden who received temporary asylum in Russia on Thursday. "His disclosures have changed the course of human history," Massie says. "His initial disclosures were a service to our country, because now we’re having this conversation — and we wouldn’t be having this conversation."

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with a group of top lawmakers on Thursday to discuss growing concerns about the National Security Agency’s broadening surveillance powers. The meeting occurred just hours after Russia granted NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden temporary asylum for a year. Snowden was the source behind a number of recent leaks about the NSA’s ability to conduct surveillance across the globe. Most recently, The Guardian newspaper revealed the existence of a secret program called XKeyscore that gives NSA analysts real-time access to, quote, "nearly everything a typical user does on the internet," including emails, chats and browsing history. The Guardian has also revealed the U.S. government has paid more than $150 million to the British spy agency GCHQ over the past three years to, quote, "secure access to and influence over Britain’s intelligence gathering programs."

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney criticized Russia for granting Snowden asylum.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful requests, in public and in private, to have Mr. Snowden expelled to the United States to face the charges against him. Mr. Snowden is not a whistleblower. He is accused of leaking classified information and has been charged with three felony counts, and he should be returned to the United States as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process and protections. This move by the Russian government undermines a long-standing record of law enforcement cooperation, cooperation that has recently been on the upswing since the Boston Marathon bombings.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia’s decision to grant Edward Snowden asylum comes at a time when the White House is coming under intense criticism from an unusual coalition of Democrats and Republicans over the NSA surveillance programs. Last week, the House nearly passed a measure that would have prevented the NSA from using the PATRIOT Act to collect phone records of individuals who are not under investigation. The measure failed by a narrow 217-to-205 margin. The bill was written by Republican Congressmember Justin Amash and Democratic Congressmember John Conyers, both of Michigan. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers including Republican Congressmember Todd Rokita of Indiana and Democratic Congressmember Adam Schiff of California have introduced a bill entitled the Ending Secret Law Act. This would require public disclosure of opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

We go now to Capitol Hill, where we’re joined by two congressmembers, Democrat John Conyers of Michigan and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who co-sponsored the Amash-Conyers amendment to limit NSA surveillance.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let us begin with Congressmember John Conyers. You were the sponsor of this amendment you co-sponsored with Congressmember Amash, a Republican of Michigan. Why now? What is it that you’re calling for?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, we’re calling for an end to this metadata of phone numbers of everybody in the United States of America without any regard for a criminal investigation going on or anything else, Amy. The point that we’re aiming at is to have relevance, which is written into the Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, be observed and adhered to, which it wasn’t, because what they’re doing is creating a haystack in which to put a needle.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Massie, the Republicans and Democrats are not usually known for working together these days in Washington. Now, this was nearly passed, this amendment. Talk about your concerns around NSA spying.

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: My concerns deal with the oversight of the programs and the reporting to Congress and the reporting to people. In March, we had the director of national intelligence come to Congress, to the Senate, and tell us that this program did not exist. Yet last week we had the head of the NSA here lobbying to fund the program. And so, what we need is more oversight. They can’t both maintain that the program doesn’t exist or tell us lies in Congress, and then ask us to fund them. Specifically what we need is more visibility into the FISA court rulings. We understand the need for secrecy in ongoing investigations, but we need to know how the FISA court is interpreting the laws that Congress has written. We need oversight over that from Congress, and we need redacted and declassified versions of those FISA court rulings for the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Massie, what are your thoughts about Russia granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, who really started this ball rolling by revealing what—what the intelligence officials of this country, from Keith Alexander to James Clapper, have long denied, but now admitted they weren’t telling the truth about, that the U.S. is spying on American citizens?

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: Well, clearly his disclosures have changed the course of human history, really. And I think his initial disclosures were a service to our country, because now we’re having this conversation. And we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I can’t speak for Mr. Snowden’s actions now. He’s basically a person looking out for his own life at this point. But what he did initially was a service to our country. We need to facilitate a way for whistleblowers to do that in a better fashion. And I don’t think our current whistleblower laws would have provided for him to do what he’s done in a better fashion, so I’d like to see some reform there, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Russia was right to grant him temporary asylum?

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: I’m not going to comment on what Russia should have done with Mr. Snowden.

AMY GOODMAN: But do you feel that Mr. Snowden did the right thing?

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: I think initially he did. And now, it would be hard for me to fault his actions at this point. He’s a person who fears for his life, and so, you know, he’s doing what he can, I think, to stay alive at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to—

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: And I don’t—by the way, I don’t think our government really wants to try him. It would be a difficult trial, and I think more things would be disclosed in the process of the trial. So it’s not clear to me that we’ve actually done everything we could to get him back here and try him. There may be another story there, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Conyers, do you think NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden did the right thing?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, I think that he was overzealous and probably didn’t. He has clearly broken some laws, for which they—now the government wants to prosecute him for. But inadvertently, he has revealed to us a whole area of secrecy and activity with telephone collections and other things that are now being revealed that would not have been revealed otherwise.

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: Can I just add that some people say he should have come to a congressman with this information. But there are actually probably 20 or 30 congressmen that already knew about this program. And if he had went to them, I think we wouldn’t be having this discussion, and he may already be in jail without the disclosure happening.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Obama during an interview with Charlie Rose in June. President Obama dismissed fears the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata could potentially be abused.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The very fact that there’s all this data, in bulk, it has the enormous potential for abuse, because they’ll say, you know, you can—when you start looking at metadata, even if you don’t know the names, you can match it up. If there’s a call to an oncologist, and it’s a call to a lawyer, and—you can pair that up and figure out maybe this person is dying and they’re writing their will, and you can yield all this information. All of that is true—except for the fact for that for the government under the program right now to do that, it would be illegal. We would not be allowed to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Conyers, your response?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, of course it would be illegal. That’s the whole point that’s being made, is that we’re not using relevancy in this matter at all, and that’s part of the statute. Unless there is relevancy considered, we’re on fishing expeditions, which are improper and probably illegal. Now, having said that, we’ve been offered a peek into what we didn’t know anything—most of us didn’t know anything about. And so, I think we should look at more transparency, the makeup of the FISA courts. As you know, Amy, the—most of those are Chief Justice Roberts’ hand-picked appointees to the court. And I think that there’s going to be a lot of follow-up and more legislation and oversight than there’s ever been before.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the Obama administration brought out the heavy hitters, and I was wondering, Congressmember Thomas Massie and Congressmember John Conyers, if you could describe what the scene was like on the legislation that you co-sponsored, Congressman Conyers, with Congressman Amash. I mean, you had the head of the NSA, you had intelligence chief James Clapper, coming to the House members to say, "Defeat this." And yet, it was so close.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, it was—seven votes would have made the difference. And, to be honest, we didn’t know that we were that close to victory. I had sent out "dear colleague" letters urging that Amash-Conyers amendment be supported, and they were panicked by it. It was a signal that even in the partisanship that goes on too much around here, that there are people willing to say, "Enough is enough. The law isn’t—the PATRIOT Act isn’t being followed." I didn’t support the PATRIOT Act, but the PATRIOT Act would have gone down if we had known that this was going to be part of its program.

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: You know, on the floor of the House, you had the House majority leader, you had the speaker of the House and the House minority leader, all got up in really unprecedented fashion and spoke, you know, in favor of keeping these NSA programs going. And I was more optimistic, I think, than my colleague here that it could pass. I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the president came out—and I’m not blaming the Democrats, because more of them voted in favor of the Constitution and freedom on this issue, but really when the president came out and gave that extra little nudge, I think it hurt us on the Democrat side, but I would defer to my colleague on that. More of his members voted the right way on this issue than my members.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to two congressmembers, Republican Congressmember Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Democratic Congressmember John Conyers, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. They are in Washington, D.C., at the Capitol. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to Edward Snowden in his own words. In his first interview with The Guardian newspaper, Edward Snowden described why he risked his career to leak the documents.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that that’s a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy. And if you do that in secret consistently, you know, as the government does when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it will kind of get its officials a mandate to go, "Hey, you know, tell the press about this thing and that thing, so the public is on our side." But they rarely, if ever, do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens. But they’re typically maligned. You know, it becomes a thing of these people are against the country, they’re against the government. But I’m not. I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there, day to day, in the office, watches what happening—what’s happening, and goes, "This is something that’s not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong." And I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, "I didn’t change these. I didn’t modify the story. This is the truth. This is what’s happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this."

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Edward Snowden in his own words. Again, he has left the Russian airport. He has been granted temporary asylum by Russia for a year. The reports are, though it is not known where he is right now, that he met Americans online who offered that he could stay with them, and it’s believed that’s where he is right now, though we don’t know all the details.

We’re joined by Republican Congressmember Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Democratic Congressmember John Conyers, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. You know, in a lot of the media, a tremendous amount is made of how Republicans and Democrats are not cooperating at all right now—complete breakdown on Capitol Hill. But here you both are, Congressmembers Massie and Conyers, standing together. And it’s not just the two of you; you’re not outliers. This legislation—the growing Democratic-Republican criticism of the intelligence state now is increasing. And I was wondering, Congressmember Massie, if you could explain what the next step is. You have the amendment that was defeated by just a few votes to stop the funding of the NSA’s spying on American phone calls. What is H.R. 2399? What’s the next step?

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: Well, I’m not sure what the number is, but there’s a bill called the Liberty Act that’s a very good bill, that I believe Congressmember Conyers is on and Justin Amash, that would raise the threshold and require that there’s some reasonable suspicion, articulable reasonable suspicion, and also would give us more transparency, Congress, more transparency into the goings-on of the FISA court. That bill, we’re hoping, because of the public outcry, will get a hearing at least in the Judiciary Committee, and it should possibly get a hearing in the Intelligence Committee. And that’s what we need. We need more hearings on this, hopefully a markup, and bring that bill.

You know, this measure barely failed—the amendment barely failed, by seven votes. I think if the vote were today and the members who voted no could do it over, I think this amendment would pass, because they misjudged the public outcry on this issue. And you played the tape of Mr. Snowden, and he—the one thing he said that I do agree with is that the public deserves to know about this program. And the public does know about it. The public knows how their members voted last week. And that will give us the momentum to get these stand-alone bills like the Liberty Act passed.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: I’ve asked for—

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Conyers, 2399, can you explain the new stand-alone bill you’re co-sponsoring?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, what we’re really trying to do is make sure that there’s relevancy observed and that it’s made clear that we cannot massively collect metadata on everybody in the country. This is what’s alarming people. And this is why we have the wind at our backs now, because people are concerned about it. During the August recess, there will be town hall meetings all over the place on this, and people will be learning what we couldn’t have learned otherwise. Now, the person that leaked it may be an overzealous leaker. I don’t think he had criminal motives, but he sure violated the law. And the Judiciary Committee, which I think our chairman, Goodlatte, will be willing to hold these hearings in the fall, when we come back, to tighten up the law and make it clear that—that if a person is not involved in any suspicious activity, they shouldn’t be—their names or their phone numbers shouldn’t be collected.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to NSA Director Keith Alexander speaking last year the Aspen Security Forum. He was questioned by NBC’s Pete Williams about the NSA’s collection of data on Americans.

PETE WILLIAMS: I want to ask you one other question about privacy, and this—read to you a statement from a former NSA employee named William Binney, who recently told a hackers’ conference that the NSA is putting together dossiers on every U.S. citizen, listing who we have relations with, what our activities are. Is there any truth to that? And why do stories like this persist, that you’re spying on all of us?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Yeah, first of all, it’s not true. We aren’t putting dossiers up on every—every U.S. citizen. In fact, we don’t have a dossier on you. I’ve never seen one of your emails, from an intelligence perspective or otherwise, actually. So, from my perspective, these are grossly out of the truth. They really are. To think that we would be collecting on every U.S. person, one, that would be against the law. Two, we get great oversight by all branches of the government. You know, I must have been bad when I was a kid. We get supervised by the Defense Department—I’m—not just the general counsel; by the DNI, their general counsel—so they see everything that we do; by the Justice Department; by the White House; by Congress, SSCI and HPSCI; and by the court. So all branches of government can see that what we’re doing is correct.

And so, my concern is that false statements like these seem to persist. And you see those bounce around. And it only hurts, because people think, "Well, they must have something there. There must be some element of truth there." And from my perspective, when you walk all the way through this, the reality is Congress knows we’re not doing that, all branches of our government see that we’re not doing it. And all of them can audit it. So, from my perspective, it’s—you know, one of the—I would add that to Bill McRaven’s: Not only should we stop leaks, but we should stop reporting this, not—it’s clearly not right.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Conyers, your response to—that’s the director of the NSA, General Keith Alexander.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, Mr. Alexander told so many whoppers in one statement that it’s hard to recount them all. First of all, this information isn’t available to anybody. We only got it through a person that took it improperly and made it public. So, the whole idea that they’re not doing this, I hope that—well, I don’t suppose he can announce a way to modify what he said, but it’s clearly untruthful from beginning to end.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Massie, I’d like you also to respond. And also, just as the Obama administration brought out the heavy hitters to defeat any kind of curtailing of the NSA’s spying mechanism last week, the establishment Republicans almost came out. You’re a new congressmember; you were elected in 2012. You have, for example, Senator McCain hitting the lot of you very hard who are saying that the NSA has to be—what they are doing has to be modified and surveilled itself.

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: Well, let me go back to whether these people should keep their jobs or not. You could probably parse General Keith Alexander’s words, and somebody could argue that he wasn’t lying, but I would say that he was definitely misleading the public on that issue. But the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, was here in March and unambiguously lied to Congress. And I believe he was under oath. And it really sets a bad precedent for the whole organization to let him keep his post. I think he should be relieved of his post for lying to Congress. He could have picked other words to say. He could have said that "I can’t comment on that." Instead, he chose to lie to us in a hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: Could he be brought up on charges of perjury?

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: Well, look, if this were any American citizen or civilian, they would certainly be prosecuted for what he just did. At a minimum, he should lose his post.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you agree with that, Congressmember Conyers?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Yes, ma’am, I do, completely. And I think we’re now at the point of having a more honest disclosure of what’s going on in our intelligence community, which we now find was very deliberately ignoring parts of the law that they knew perfectly well they were violating.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a point of history, Roger Clemens was brought up on perjury charges for lying to Congress in 2008 around steroids. I mean, this seems to be a key area. In fact, Clapper himself admitted that he did not tell the truth.

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: Look, if we accept the premise that it’s OK for government to lie to us or for one branch of the government to lie to the other branch of the government in order to protect our public safety, then we’ve crossed the threshold. We cannot accept that it’s OK for government to lie to us to protect us.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Yes. We can’t turn into a surveillance state trying to protect these kinds of conduct that we all know is improper and probably illegal.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you sense something very different than we’re getting in the media, that there is a bipartisan convergence now that’s happening that isn’t getting reported, that the Obama administration is deeply concerned about? And do you have a sense that they are shifting here, that they’re feeling the pressure?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: I think that they might be, because I was in the White House yesterday—full disclosure—and the president of the United States said that he was going to give me a call. And I’ll be looking forward to that call. And it’s—they know that things are happening. But, you know, we frequently work together on issues, but they don’t get reported or disclosed. There is bipartisanship at times. We’re trying to improve it. And I think—I think that we’re moving into a better environment in the House of Representatives.

REP. THOMAS MASSIE: I agree. And I can also say that yesterday we were briefed in a classified briefing by General Keith Alexander, and his tone seemed to be a lot more conciliatory and a lot more open, because they realize, if they’re going to keep these programs around, or some form of these programs, they’ve got a public relations problem to deal with and a relations problem with Congress, both parties of Congress.


AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, Congressmember Conyers, I wanted to ask you about Detroit and the declaration of bankruptcy. Do you feel the federal government—do you feel the federal government should bail out Detroit now?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, I don’t—I don’t know if we’re in a position to do that. What we’re doing in the Michigan congressional delegation, Democratic, is looking at a whole list of programs that would assist Detroit, and what we’re trying to determine is whether we have received—whether we have applied for them, first, and secondly, whether there’s any possibility of benefiting from them. And the thing that we’re most concerned about is protecting the pensions of those people who have worked 30, 40 years for the city. And, fortunately, pensions are constitutionally protected in the Michigan constitution. And, again, we have bipartisan support. The attorney general of Michigan, a Republican, has come out in support of protecting the pensions. So we’re down, but we’re not out, and we’re going to rise again.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Republican Congressmember Thomas Massie of Kentucky, elected in 2012; Democratic Congressmember John Conyers, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. And we will certainly continue to follow the legislation that you are introducing. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

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