Deputy Attorney General James Cole defended secret domestic surveillance programs that sweep up American's phone records and target Internet communications, telling a House committee Tuesday that the initiatives are legal and have robust oversight.
"There are statutes that are passed by Congress. This is not a program that's off the books, that’s been hidden away," Cole said in testimony before the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "This is part of what government puts together and discusses. Statutes are passed. It is overseen by three branches of our government."
In a hearing by the Republican-controlled committee titled "How Disclosed NSA Programs Protect Americans, and Why Disclosure Aids Our Adversaries," Cole addressed secret orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. The Washington-based court, which meets behind closed doors, hears government applications for search and surveillance requests in national security investigations.
The surveillance programs have become controversial since a leaked memo, published in the Guardian newspaper, showed the government has been collecting the metadata—basic information, but not the content—of every phone call made in America. The main court order describing the limits of those efforts remains classified.
Cole told Congress that the FISA court has strict control about how and when that phone record metadata can be used. "There has to be independent evidence, aside from these phone records, that the person you’re targeting is involved with a terrorist organization," Cole said.
He also said Fourth Amendment privacy protections do not apply to these records because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said Americans don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to the basic details of phone calls, such as what number was called, when and the duration.
When it comes to PRISM, the National Security Agency's program for collecting content from the Internet, Cole said the government only does so for non-United States citizens who are located outside the United States and have procedures to purge any information collected mistakenly.
Sitting next to the National Security Agency director, Gen. Keith Alexander, Cole said the government is constantly trying to balance protecting public safety with protecting people's privacy and civil liberties.
"It's a constant job at balancing this," Cole said. "We think we've done this in these instances."