- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2013

Congress took the first steps Thursday to restrain the NSA’s phone-snooping program, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein laying out details of a bill that require phone data be deleted more quickly and agents to let a secret court know immediately every time they want to dig through the data.

Ms. Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she will put her bill up for a committee vote next week, placing pressure on President Obama’s top intelligence officials, who offered a defense to preserve the snooping program: peace of mind.

Those officials, though, appeared to raise more privacy concerns when they refused to tell the committee whether the government tracked Americans’ locations through their phone signals or whether they have drawn up plans to do so.

The refusal seemed to signal that such tracking has, indeed, occurred.

“This is something the American people have a right to know,” Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, told Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, who refused to answer.

Details of the NSA’s phone-records snooping program were leaked this year by former government contractor Edward Snowden, startling many Americans who were surprised to learn that their government was storing five years of records of nearly every call made within the U.S., including time of the call and the number dialed.

The NSA gets the information from phone companies but says it looks at the data only if it has a suspicion of terrorist activity, and then looks for whom a suspect called, and whom those people have called.

But Mr. Obama’s top intelligence officials said the leaks have left the public with false impressions of the scope and operation of the programs, and pleaded with Congress to find a balance that allows them to keep snooping.

“As Americans, we face an unending array of threats to our way of life, more than I’ve seen in my 50 years in intelligence. We need to sustain our ability to detect these threats,” said Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. “We welcome a balanced discussion about national security and civil liberties; it’s not an either/or situation. We need to continue to protect both.”

Officials previously claimed the program has halted terrorist attacks, but in the face of congressional skepticism, Mr. Clapper added another defense Thursday, arguing that being able to prove attacks aren’t imminent also is helpful.

He called that the “peace of mind metric.”

Mr. Clapper said one example was this summer, when the U.S. shut down diplomatic facilities in the Middle East after receiving credible information that warned of an al Qaeda attack.

“We did have indications of a potential nexus in the United States. There was a group of selectors that were reviewed and checked out and found to be negative,” he said.

Civil liberties advocates mocked that reasoning.

“The justifications keep getting broader and crazier as time goes on,” said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think what you’re seeing is sort of the last grasp here for a justification for these programs. I think it demonstrates that what they’ve been saying for the last three months is not persuasive for Congress or the American public.”

Ms. Feinstein said her bill will expressly prohibit the intelligence community from spying on the content of phone calls and will put into law the requirement that the records can be checked only when there is a “recent articulable suspicion that a phone number is associated with terrorism.”

She also said the legislation would cut the amount of time the records can be kept, and would require agencies to report on how many queries they make every year, the number of times those inquiries produce good intelligence leading to warrants, and the number of phone numbers checked.

But she said she believes the fundamentals of the program are constitutional and legal and that it is up to the administration to sell its usefulness to Americans.

“It’s clear to me that the public has a misperception, and that must be corrected,” she said.

Other lawmakers suggested more changes: Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent, said he wanted indicators of potential wrongdoing sent straight to an independent authority outside of the executive branch. Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, said adding a nongovernment entity to the process could help as a privacy check.

The committee is expected to hold a meeting next week to vote on Ms. Feinstein’s bill and amendments to it, but that will be behind closed doors. The text of her bill won’t be released until after the committee is finished.

Ms. Richardson at the ACLU said she thinks the bill will clear Ms. Feinstein’s committee but will have a tougher time in the full Senate because of opposition from a coalition of liberals and conservatives.

One key lawmaker, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, has said he believes the government is misusing the Patriot Act — specifically Section 215, which the government says allows the phone program.

“In my view, and I’ve discussed this with the White House, the Section 215 collection of Americans’ phone records must end,” Mr. Leahy said in a speech at Georgetown Law Center this week. “It is not making America safer and the government has not made its case this is an effective counterterrorism tool.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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