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Sen. Carl Levin imagines NSA phone-tracking in hands of J. Edgar Hoover

The Michigan Democrat frames in vivid terms the potential for abuse of the NSA phone-surveillance program, invoking the memory of J. Edgar Hoover and his secret FBI files on public officials. But the program has pluses, too, says Sen. Carl Levin.

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Senator Carl Levin speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters on Tuesday, July 16, in Washington, DC.

Michael Bonfigli/TCSM

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Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan says the phone-monitoring technology used by the US National Security Agency to battle terrorism has “a greater potential to invade our privacy” than what was possible in the past.

The NSA’s ability to track the phone numbers called and received by every American “is something we all have to think through, because there are pluses to it in terms of catching bad guys and there are some minuses to it in terms of abuses,” Senator Levin said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters on Tuesday.

Framing the issue of potential abuse in vivid terms, Levin adds: “If this technology were in the hands of [former FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover, would I feel comfortable? No. But on the other hand, I was not comfortable with J. Edgar Hoover with his technology.” Hoover was known for directing FBI agents to assemble private files on public officials – and for using the information to wield power in Washington.

Levin notes that the NSA cannot listen to Americans' phone calls unless it can show to a judge a link to unlawful activity. “They can’t look at the substance of my conversations, but they can find out a heck of a lot about me by what phone calls I make,” the senator says.

Levin is an influential voice on national security issues because of his position as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and his membership on the Intelligence and Homeland Security committees.

Asked whether he felt the NSA had fully informed him about its activities, Levin responded, “On this issue [of tracking the metadata on phone calls] I was adequately informed.”

He did, however, say he was "troubled" by misleading congressional testimony from James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, regarding the NSA phone-tracking program. Mr. Clapper, Levin adds, “has made it clear he regrets saying what he said, and I don’t want to call on the president to fire him, although I am troubled by it.”

At a congressional hearing in March, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon asked Clapper if the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper answered, “No, sir.” But less than two months later, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the NSA program tracking Americans' phone calls, Clapper sent a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D) of California that said, “my response was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize.” Clapper said he had been thinking about a different section of the law when he replied to Senator Wyden. 

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