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We Really Don’t Want the NSA Spying on Congress

EFF Photos

Brantly Millegan - published on 01/16/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Getting a small leg up on supposed terrorists isn’t worth upsetting the very foundations of our government.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sent a letter to the NSA last week with a simple question, "Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?"

The NSA’s response? “Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons." (CNN)

This question has been asked before. Again according to CNN, “Attorney General Eric Holder similarly deflected answering the same question at a congressional hearing last summer, telling Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, that the NSA had no ‘intent’ to spy on Congress, but the issue was better discussed in private.” Remind anyone of James Clapper’s “No…not wittingly”?

Both of these answers mean “yes.”

Conor Friedersdorf over at The Atlantic explains why this is so problematic.

“Access to that telephone metadata would be extremely useful for manipulating the legislature. So is it wise to collect it and make it accessible to a secretive executive-branch agency? Even if the NSA has never abused the temptation, will they resist it forever? Operating on that assumption seems both reckless and needless, given the scant evidence that the Section 215 program is necessary and the significant public interest in maintaining the integrity and legitimacy of the legislature.”

Friedersdorf has rightly opposed the NSA spying program since it was first revealed by Edward Snowden, and he’s right in highlighting how destructive this particular element of it could be.

Our federal government is based on the principle of the separation of powers. Yes, the executive and judicial branches have the task of enforcing laws. Investigating members of Congress when they have been accused of crimes is fair game. But collecting information just to collect information?

In addition to being an obvious infringement of the fourth amendment, the NSA spying on members of Congress (or anyone in the government) could upset the whole system of checks and balances by giving the executive branch personal leverage over the members of the other branches.

But let’s say the NSA is not intentionally targeting members of Congress, and only accidentally collecting data on them as they collect data on others. Nonetheless, they still have the information. That’s just another very good reason the whole digital spying program should be hugely curtailed if not scrapped altogether.

Brantly Millegan is an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Second Nature, Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity, and is working on a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. He lives with his wife and three children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is

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