As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs, a senior White House official is telling reporters that he’s not worried that the government is planning to bring criminal charges against government agents who have violated the law.
In an interview on Thursday, Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said that “criminal charges will not be filed against federal agents” if they break the law or the Constitution.
He added that, “I think there are very strong arguments” for charging the agents involved, but “there are strong reasons to believe that it will be the right thing for the American people.”
The former FBI director, who served under President George W. Bush, said the “whole thing is a very delicate subject” and “there’s not a lot of clarity.”
But he also added that “the FBI is an independent law enforcement agency, and there are things that the FBI does, and they can do, and the president can do as well.”
Earnest said the White House was “deeply concerned” by the NSA surveillance programs and that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have discussed them with the president.
He did not say how many meetings have taken place between the president and the FBI director.
The White House declined to comment on whether Holder is a target of the Justice Department’s criminal investigation, citing the ongoing probe into the IRS scandal.
Last week, the Justice and Treasury Departments announced that the NSA was violating the law by intercepting and storing millions of Americans’ phone records in bulk and that the agency had improperly collected data on millions of others.
The NSA said it was acting to prevent further harm to Americans’ privacy.
The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to subpoena the FBI for records about the NSA’s collection of phone metadata and metadata from foreign targets, as well as for any surveillance of U.S. persons.
The panel’s Democrats said the subpoenas would be necessary because the agency failed to tell Congress about the surveillance program and its potential impact on Americans’ constitutional rights.
The Justice Department on Wednesday announced that it had been forced to backtrack on its earlier pledge to disclose more details about the scope of the NSA spying program, including whether it collected metadata on Americans and whether the NSA had access to Americans without warrants.
In a memo issued last week, Attorney General Holder acknowledged that the intelligence community had been able to access Americans’ metadata without a warrant, but said he would not provide a “clearly articulable” justification for the program.
Holder said that the program was “not designed to target any particular person or group.”
“This program is designed to track the communications of foreign targets and gather foreign intelligence about the U.N. and other international organizations,” Holder said in the memo.
“The scope and intent of this program has not been determined.”
The Justice Department has also declined to reveal the number of Americans who have been subject to the surveillance, saying it is an internal government matter and does not want to reveal too many details.
The NSA, which operates under the direction of the Department of Defense, has been conducting the bulk collection of Americans phone records since 2007.
The Justice and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved the program in 2008 after a series of court challenges.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Thursday on the legality of the programs.
The court has ruled in recent years that the Patriot Act does not require warrants for the NSA to collect metadata.