Senate Panel: Is NSA Watching Americans Buy Guns? Books? Tools? Aspirin?


A group of Senators from both political parties is investigating whether the National Security Agency (NSA) has been mining data on Americans’ purchasing habits, focusing especially on firearms and media consumption.

The 26-member group sent a letter Thursday to NSA Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, asking him to explain how, and to what extent, the agency grabs up data generated from citizens’ network-based credit transactions, banking data, library records and pharmacy visits.

Asserting that the U.S. Patriot Act authorized surveillance methods that hid government’s broad reach from both American citizens and the limiting influence of Congressional oversight, the Senators question both the efficacy and the legality of relying on the Patriot Act as a rubber-stamp search tool for the vast majority of Americans who aren’t suspected of a crime.

The PATRIOT Act’s business records authority is very broad in its scope. It can be used to collect information on credit card purchases, pharmacy records, library records, firearm sales records, financial information, and a range of other sensitive subjects. And the bulk collection authority could potentially be used to supersede bans on maintaining gun owner databases, or laws protecting the privacy of medical records, financial records, and records of book and movie purchases. These other types of bulk collection could clearly have a significant impact on Americans’ privacy and liberties as well.

It has been suggested that the privacy impact of particular methods of domestic surveillance should be weighed against the degree to which the surveillance enhances our national security. With this in mind, we are interested in hearing more details about why you believe that the bulk phone records collection program provides any unique value.

…[W]e are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law. Statements from senior officials that the PATRIOT Act authority is “analogous to a grand jury subpoena” and that the NSA “[doesn’t] hold data on US citizens” had the effect of misleading the public about how the law was being interpreted and implemented.

This prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly.

The letter is blunt in asking many of the same questions Americans outraged by the (known) scope of the NSA’s surveillance methods want to ask:

  • How long has the NSA used PATRIOT Act authorities to engage in bulk collection of Americans’ records? Was this collection underway when the law was reauthorized in 2006?
  • Has the NSA used USA PATRIOT Act authorities to conduct bulk collection of any other types of records pertaining to Americans, beyond phone records?
  • Has the NSA collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site location data in bulk?
  • Have there been any violations of the court orders permitting this bulk collection, or of the rules governing access to these records? If so, please describe these violations.
  • Please identify any specific examples of instances in which intelligence gained by reviewing phone records obtained through Section 215 bulk collection proved useful in thwarting a particular terrorist plot.
  • Please provide specific examples of instances in which useful intelligence was gained by reviewing phone records that could not have been obtained without the bulk collection authority, if such examples exist.
  • Please describe the employment status of all persons with conceivable access to this data, including IT professionals, and detail whether they are federal employees, civilian or military, or contractors.


Personal Liberty

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.

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  • mathis1689

    Good luck with getting any kind of an answer at all-much less an honest one.

  • Shorty Stuff

    Congress should revoke the (un)Patriot Act, disband the NSA, CIA, IRS, DEA, EPA, and all the other 3&4 letter agencies, and charge everyone in this tyrannical regime with high crimes and misdemeanors. That’s about the only way they will get any respect from me.

    • monizame


    • bruce

      Disband them? that would let them back into society… I say we build a 50′ concrete wall around them and disconnect the power… and launch pb&j sandwiches over the walls each day to keep them alive so they can see how it feels to be a prisoner of the USA.

  • Alan

    Yeah, like they’re really going to give you any honest, detailed information on their spying. Doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of clandestine information gathering?

  • jdn

    We have seen the enemy , its us .

  • Guest

    Clapper has already been a proven liar, why should we trust him again. Heck, why does he still have a job at NSA? The Patriot Act needs a major overhaul if not outright repeal!

  • Al Chemist

    All that’s left if for them to start teaching the little kids in school (1st through 6th grades) to spy on and inform the teachers about what their parents say and do. It’s not so far off.

    • Vis Fac

      And in the LAUSD they’re spending almost a Million dollars in Federal grant money to teach kids how to push (teach) ODUMBOCARE on the parents most of whom cannot speak English. This is the reason we need immigration reform. Comiefornia has the highest concentration of illegals on wellfare food stamps medi-care and free education all paid for by the taxpayers. This madness has got to stop.

  • TexasOlTimer

    “A Nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious, but it can not survive TREASON FROM WITHIN… An enemy at the gates is less formidable for he is known and he carries his banners openly, but the traitor moves among those within the gate freely. His sly whispers rustling thru all the galleries, heard in every hall of government itself. For the traitor appears, not as a traitor, he speaks in the accents familiar to his victims and he wears their face and their garments. He appeals to the BASENESS that lies in the heart of all men. He rots the soul of a Nation. He works secretly and unknown in the night, to undermine the pillars of the city. He INFECTS THE BODY POLITIC, so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared.”
    – Cicero 42 B.C.

    • Walt

      I like this quote! Sounds very much like what’s going on today.

  • Marc McGuire

    MISTRUST has become a Malignant Cancer in Todays America between our
    Government and the American People, and we only have ourselves to blame
    for it! Is there a Doctor in Town?