This might come as a surprise to many readers, but one of the most effective lines of questioning about the government’s secret anti-terror surveillance programs at today’s House Intelligence Committee hearing came from a woman famous for repeating false information and fringe theories: Michele Bachmann. In lawyerly style, the GOP Congresswoman and former 2012 presidential candidate asked three witnesses–NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, NSA deputy director John Inglis, and deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce–a series of questions designed to show that that federal surveillance is not as broad, intrusive or alarming as many Americans–presumably including many of the Tea Partiers who supported her 2012 presidential bid, seem to believe. Indeed, Bachmann almost seemed to be directly refuting the conspiracist rhetoric of libertarian Republicans like Rand Paul. You may not agree with Bachmann’s embrace of these programs, or her characterization of Edward Snowden as a “traitor,” but the exchange was among the day’s most interesting and effective. Here’s a transcript, slightly edited for concision:
REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN): Thank you, Mr. Chair… I just have a series of short questions.
My first one is, you had mentioned earlier in your testimony that data must be destroyed within five years of acquisition. I believe that’s in Section 215, phone records. Is that — that’s true, within five years?
MR. INGLIS: That is true. It’s destroyed when it reaches five years of age.
REP. BACHMANN: And how long do the phone companies on their own maintain data?
MR. INGLIS: That varies…. I think that it ranges from six to 18 months and that the data that they hold is, again, useful for their purposes, not necessarily the government’s.
REP. BACHMANN: So then my question is, did the FISA orders give the United States companies a choice in whether to participate in the NSA business records or in the PRISM programs? Was this voluntarily compliance on the part of these companies?
MR. INGLIS: No, these are court orders that require their compliance with the terms of the court order.
REP. BACHMANN: So let me just for the record state, is NSA spying today, or have you spied on American citizens?
MR. INGLIS: We do not target U.S. persons anywhere in the world without a specific court warrant.
REP. BACHMANN: And does the NSA listen to the phone calls of American citizens?
MR. INGLIS: We do not target or listen to the telephone calls of U.S. persons under that targeting without a specific court warrant.
REP. BACHMANN: Does the NSA read the emails of American citizens?
MR. INGLIS: Same answer, ma’am.
REP. BACHMANN: Does the NSA read the text messages of American citizens?
MR. INGLIS: Again, we do not target the content of U.S. person communications without a specific warrant anywhere on the earth.
REP. BACHMANN: Has the NSA ever tracked any political enemies of the administration, whether it’s a Republican administration or Democrat administration? Have either of the administrations — you said you’re a hundred-percent auditable, so you would know the answer to this question — have you ever tracked the political enemies of an administration?
MR. INGLIS: In my time at NSA, no, ma’am.
REP. BACHMANN: Does the government keep video data like Mr. Himes had just questioned? Does the government have a database with video data in it, tracking movements of the American people?
MR. INGLIS: No, ma’am….
GEN. ALEXANDER: NSA does not hold such data, tracking –MR. INGLIS: Yeah, and we don’t know of any data — anybody that does. So I think those are held, as you see from Boston, by individual shop owners (and ?) street corners.
REP. BACHMANN: But does the federal government have a database with video data in it –
MR. INGLIS: No.
REP. BACHMANN: — tracking the whereabouts of the American people?
MR. JOYCE: The FBI does not have such a database, nor am I aware of one.
REP. BACHMANN: Does the American government have a database that has the GPS location/whereabouts of Americans, whether it’s by our cellphones or by other tracking device? Is there a known database?
GEN. ALEXANDER: NSA does not hold such a database.
REP. BACHMANN: Does the NSA have a database that you maintain that holds the content of Americans’ phone calls? Do you have recordings of all of our calls? So if we’re making phone calls, is there a national database that has the content of our calls?
GEN. ALEXANDER: We’re not allowed to do that, nor do we do that unless we have a court order to do that. And it would be only in specific cases. And almost always that would be an FBI lead, not ours.
REP. BACHMANN: So do we maintain a database of all of the e- mails –
GEN. ALEXANDER: No.
REP. BACHMANN: — that have ever been sent by the American people?
GEN. ALEXANDER: No. No, we do not.
REP. BACHMANN: Do we — is there a database from our government that maintains a database of the text messages of all Americans?
GEN. ALEXANDER: No, none that I know of, and none at NSA.
REP. BACHMANN: And so I think what you have told this committee today is that the problem is not with the NSA that is trying to keep the American people safe — you’ve told us that you have a hundred- percent auditable system that has oversight both from the courts and from Congress — it seems to me that the problem here is that of an individual who worked within the system who broke laws and who chose to declassify highly sensitive classified information. It seems to me that’s where our focus should be, on how there could be a betrayal of trust and how a traitor could do something like this to the American people. It seems to me that’s where our focus must be and how we can prevent something like that from ever happening again.
Let me ask your opinion.
How damaging is this to the national security of the American people that this trust was violated?
GEN. ALEXANDER: I think it was irreversible and significant damage to this nation.
REP. BACHMANN: Has this helped America’s enemies?
GEN. ALEXANDER: I believe it has and I believe it will hurt us and our allies.
REP. BACHMANN: I yield back, Mr. Chair.