A bipartisan group of 48 House members want Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to give them a briefing on Yahoo Inc.’s surveillance program “as soon as possible.”
“There is significant confusion regarding the existence and nature of the program described by these reports and the legal questions implicated by the accuracy of specific details,” the lawmakers wrote in a Friday letter to Lynch and Clapper.
Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) were among those who signed the request.
“Members of Congress have a responsibility to oversee surveillance practices and ensure that all activities comply with the Constitution and federal law,” said Amash, who spearheaded the letter, in a Friday statement. “Our number one job is protecting the rights of the people.”
Reuters and the New York Times reported in early October that Yahoo built custom software to scan and search all of its users’ incoming emails for a specific set of characters on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies. The Times reported that Yahoo was looking for messages with a computer “signature” linked to the communications of a state-sponsored terrorist organization.
While several members of the House and Senate have expressed concern over the reported surveillance Yahoo conducted on its users, Friday’s letter marks the first formal request for a briefing from members of Congress.
“As legislators, it is our responsibility to have accurate information about the intelligence activities conducted by the federal government,” the lawmakers wrote.
Reuters reported that the email scan had been ordered under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008, a program that is meant to target foreign individuals located outside of the U.S. Many privacy advocates argue 702 surveillance picks up troves of Americans’ communications yearly.
The outlet retracted that assertion a day later and cited an anonymous source who said the Department of Justice obtained the order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secretive panel that oversees requests for foreign spy orders.
The House lawmakers asked for a briefing for all members of Congress to clear up that confusion over what legal mechanisms led the U.S. government to direct Yahoo to spy on its users.
The American public found it troubling as well. A Morning Consult poll found that half of those surveyed said they viewed the surveillance program negatively because it violates the privacy of Yahoo Mail users. But 25 percent said the program was a good thing because intelligence officials would be able to view messages related to potential terrorist or crime plots.