The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) "probably" gathers intelligence data pertaining to congressional phone communications, a Justice Department official has revealed.
At a committee hearing on Tuesday, February 4, Deputy Attorney General James Cole who was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee conceded that the NSA likely collects phone records of members of the Congress and their staff.
Darell Issa, a House Republican, asked Cole whether the program was snooping information from "202-225-and four digits" - which is the phone exchange for House of Representatives offices.
"Mr. Cole, do you collect 202-225 and four digits afterwards?" Issa asked.
"We probably do, Mr. Congressman," Cole replied. "But we're not allowed to look at any of those, however, unless we have reasonable, articulable suspicion that those numbers are related to a known terrorist threat."
Issa then pressed on whether President Barack Obama's calls were also targeted by the program.
"I believe every phone number that is with the providers that get those orders comes in under the scope of that order," said Cole.
Cole, however, did not clarify whether calls made by the President were monitored as well.
Republicans and Democrats who were on the House Judiciary Committee condemned the NSA's surveillance activities and noted that it was a misuse of authority which the Congress had granted under the Patriot Act.
"Congress never intended to allow bulk collections," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), author of the 2001 Patriot Act.
The debate whether the bulk data collection effort should be scrapped or modified has intensified in the Congress. David Medine, chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, told the Committee that the program should come to an end.
"We conclude the benefits of the program are modest at best and they are outweighed by the privacy and civil liberties consequences," said Medine.
The recent hearing comes amid growing concern regarding domestic intelligence gathering activities by the NSA. This, however, is not the first time members of Congress have been given hints that their activities could be monitored.
Earlier in January, Senator Bernie Sanders had sent a letter to the NSA asking it whether it also spies on democratically elected legislators.
According to Cole, the Justice Department is weighing its options and working towards resolving who the phone records should be with, whether telephone companies or a third party.
"We're also trying to think outside the box and see if there are other options that we can come up with," Cole told the Committee.