The Obama administration signaled Wednesday that it is ready to accept some changes to the National Security Agency telephone snooping program, as intelligence officials fought fiercely against congressional critics to preserve what they say is a vital tool in rooting out terrorist plots.
But lawmakers of both parties said the program is proving to be a tough sell inside Congress and among voters back home, particularly because of inaccurate claims the administration has made over the years about the scope of its snooping.
The frustration was visible Wednesday as senators grilled intelligence and law enforcement officials, saying the administration has used secrecy laws to prevent Congress from informing the American people and has misrepresented key data that would help lawmakers decide whether the NSA surveillance programs are even needed.
“I think the patience of the American people is beginning to wear thin, but what has to be of more concern in a democracy is the trust of the American people is wearing thin,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and the chamber’s senior lawmaker.
Stung by leaks that made the NSA program public this year, President Obama and his top lieutenants now say they are willing to change some parts of the program and perhaps declassify some of the secret court opinions on which it is based — though they have not made specific suggestions.
“It’s worth having a debate about where we’re going to strike that balance between security for the nation and making sure that people’s privacy and civil liberty rights are being honored,” said James Cole, deputy attorney general. “And that’s a tough balance to find, but it’s a balance worth talking about, and it’s the process that we are welcoming and engaging in right now.”
The White House announced that it has invited key lawmakers to meet with Mr. Obama on Thursday to try to assuage concerns about the program.
Among those expected to attend the briefing: the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate intelligence committees; Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and an outspoken critic of NSA domestic data-gathering programs; Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican.
Last week the House came close to voting to defund the records collection program as part of debate on a spending bill.
Even many of those who voted to preserve the program, which survived on a 217-205 vote, said they will have to see changes if they are to remain onboard.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, said she is waiting to see how open the administration is to making changes and how much pressure Congress exerts.
“I think they will negotiate if and when they have to, and not before,” she said of the administration. “They are still feeling out the waters in terms of whether they’re going to be forced to make changes.”
The NSA program, which the agency says is authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, requires phone companies to turn over the so-called metadata for every phone call made in the U.S., including which numbers were dialed and the length of the conversations.
But NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said Wednesday that such massive data-collection efforts do not include information on where the calls were made on mobile phones, or the names or addresses of individual telephone subscribers.