The head of the government’s civil liberties protection board said Thursday that its classified review of the NSA’s collection of Americans telephone records didn’t turn up any evidence of abuses — but both he and the man who lead the National Security Agency’s program said it’s still time to end bulk collection.
Retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was NSA director when the spy agency began the bulk phone-records collection program under the Bush administration, said he supports the bill winding through Congress that would end the government’s ability to collect and store phone metadata, instead leaving the information with the phone companies, which would only turn over limited data approved by court order.
Both Mr. Hayden and David Medine, the chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, also said they support creating an independent advocate for average Americans’ interests before the secret court that oversees intelligence programs.
The two men spoke alongside Sen. Mike Lee and two top officials from the American Civil Liberties Union at a panel on privacy sponsored by The Washington Times, the ACLU and Microsoft. Times Opinion Editor David A. Keene moderated the discussion, which saw Mr. Hayden say the NSA can live within the new constraints — but the public will see a drop in security.
“Draw the box [and] we’ll play inside the smaller box,” Mr. Hayden said. “By increasing your comfort level, you’ve also almost certainly increased your danger level. But as long as you’re comfortable with that, that’s the social contract. That’s the way democracies work.”
The NSA program came to light after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked its details last year. The government has since acknowledged it is collecting and keeping five years’ worth of telephone metadata — the times, durations and parties involved in phone calls — and searching it to try to spot terrorist links.
Since then, questions have been raised about the extent and efficacy of that information, gathered on Americans under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, as well as information gathered on foreigners under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The House last month passed a bill that would halt bulk collection and leave the data in the hands of phone companies. The NSA could still compel the companies to turn over big chunks of data but would have to justify each request by citing specific “selector terms.”
Still, that bill was watered down from the original version at the behest of the Obama administration and with the compliance of House GOP leaders.
“I think the USA Freedom Act is an important first step,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, who said she hopes the Senate adds back in some of the protections dropped in the House version. “It’s attacking just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reining in mass surveillance.”
Mr. Hayden said that when the phone program began, it collected nearly 100 percent of metadata records. But lately it’s been about 25 or 30 percent.
He said the new bill will change that.
“It’s going to be a little cumbersome. It’s going to be a little harder to hop from Verizon to AT&T to some other phone company in order to do the chaining,” he said. “But in return for the lack of agility, we will now have access to all of your phone records, and I think that is a happy compromise.”
Mr. Hayden repeatedly pushed back against what he said was a misunderstanding of the programs and the law.
He said one misconception is to say bulk data collection is an executive program. He said Section 215 of the Patriot Act was passed by Congress and reauthorized even after bulk collection was going on and said it’s done with the approval of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.