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Political Mercury

Harkin suspects intelligence agency went too far with phone records


U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says that most crucial of balances in democracy is now tilted too much to security and away from Americans’ civil liberties.

Harkin spoke with Cityview and other media on a conference call Thursday, a day after a high-profile Senate hearing in which the director of the National Security Agency contended secret-data-collection efforts stopped terrorist attacks. The NSA, relying on classified orders from a secret court, gathered phone records on millions of Americans.

“I think the American people are concerned about the erosion of our civil liberties, and I think that covers both the right and the left in this country,” Harkin said.

Harkin, not a member of the Intelligence Committee, said he does not have the full details on the matter. But the veteran senator made it clear he would give the intelligence community a much shorter leash than the Obama administration and its recent predecessors.

“I can tell you I have deep concerns about what’s going on, and I think we need some lengthy, involved hearings on this,” Harkin said. “I’m just not going to accept the word of the head of the NSA or the head of some of our intelligence agencies.”

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Harkin said in his 40 years in Congress, he’s seen intelligence agencies “manipulate and twist” information to their own ends.

“They may have gone beyond really what they were supposed to do under the Patriot Act,” Harkin said.

Harkin said more and more U.S. government documents are becoming classified, which isn’t healthy for a free society. More than 1 million people in government have secret or top-secret clearances, he said.

“It’s my firm belief that much of this is just wasted, bureaucratic spending,” Harkin said.

Historically, presidents are interested in making more information secret, keeping it out of the public realm, Harkin said, citing Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“It just keeps piling up, and under this president, the pattern is the same,” Harkin said. “That’s what bothers me. We seem to be on a march, almost like pre-determined course, that we’re just going to keep classifying more and more stuff.”

Harkin said he detects a great deal of concern from Iowans that the government is going beyond its bounds “that is sort of putting a kind of fear out there about who they can call, and what they can say, and is the government, are they listening? Will this be recorded for whatever purpose? That has a real chilling effect, and I don’t think it’s healthy.”

The NSA says its surveillance programs, including collection of Internet interaction among foreigners, helped prevent an attack on the New York City subway in 2009, and dozens of other terrorist plots that were expected to be revealed to senators in closed-door sessions.

“That’s one thing I just don’t accept on its face value,” Harkin said. “They say that. Of course, they’re going to say that because they’re covering their you-know-what, covering their rear-ends.”

Harkin said it is challenging to prove a direct link between a foiled terrorist plan and intelligence activities.

“A lot of times the intelligence agency, they claim credit for something that a local policeman did or a local law-enforcement officer might have done,” Harkin said.

burns doug 12-10-25The senator said credibility issues over spying and Internal Revenue Service activities could jeopardize work on jobs programs and other Obama initiatives.

“If I had one bit of advice for the president, I’d say, ‘Get a handle on this,’ ” Harkin said. “You run these agencies. Maybe some heads ought to roll.” CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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