The USA Patriot Act section the NSA and FBI cite to justify mass phone surveillance is meant to allow seizures of information directly related to national security probes, not the routine collection of phone records of millions of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis and Deputy Attorney General James Cole during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
NSA surveillance authority under Section 215 expires in 2015, said Sensenbrenner, who sponsored the Patriot Act in October 2001.
And unless national-security officials rein in the scope of their surveillance of Americans' phone records, "There are not the votes in the House of Representatives" to renew the section when it expires, he said in a heated confrontation during the hearing.
No Section 215, no surveillance authority, Sensenbrenner said.
"You're going to lose it entirely," he said.
His combative comments were part of a backlash of criticism of the government's bulk collection of Americans' phone records by lawmakers of both parties.
"This is unsustainable, it's outrageous and must be stopped immediately," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the panel's highest-ranking Democrat.
"I think very clearly this program has gone off the tracks legally and needs to be reined in," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
Added Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, a former federal judge, "I hope as we move forward as a Congress, we rein in the idea that it's OK to bruise the spirit of the Constitution in the name of national security."
The sharp and sometimes angry criticism came as Inglis testified NSA intercepts of Americans' private phone calls and online communications were exponentially broader than the agency earlier acknowledged.
The secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court "has approved us to go out two or three hops," Inglis said. "And it's often at the second hop" that the FBI and NSA investigate a person's contacts further, he said.
NSA analysts then perform "a second- or third-hop query" of phone and online records to make connections between people and terrorist organizations, Inglis testified.
A "hop" is a technical term indicating connections between people.
When analysts think they have reason to suspect an individual, they will look at everyone that person has contacted. This is called the first hop away from the target.
Then, in a three-hop query, they exponentially look at everyone all that second group of people communicated with. And then at a third level, they look at all the people those in the third group contacted.
A leaked document cited by British newspaper The Guardian last month referred to one- and two-hop analyses but not three.
The document, provided by fugitive ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, makes no explicit mention of three-hop analysis and, in fact, does not suggest such analysis occurs, The Guardian said.
American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer told the House committee the NSA wasn't upfront about the magnitude of what these "hops" mean.
"The first hop takes you to 100 people," Jaffer said. "The second one takes you to 10,000. The third one takes you to a million."
Lofgren said for the first time the Obama administration's annual report to Congress about phone-records collection -- cited by intelligence officials as evidence of disclosure to Congress -- is "less than a single page and not more than eight sentences."
"Snowden, I don't like him at all," Poe said. "But we would have never known what happened if he hadn't told us."
President Barack Obama gave assurances nearly six weeks ago lawmakers were fully aware of the NSA's phone surveillance.
"When it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program," Obama told reporters June 7. "With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs."