- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Obama administration vowed Thursday to end bulk collection of data if Congress passes a Patriot Act reform bill winding its way through the Senate, which is designed to end the NSA phone snooping program revealed by Edward Snowden.

Top administration lawyers told Congress they accept that the legislation is meant to end their ability to collect and store phone data from all Americans’ calls — and said they will abide by that interpretation of the law.

But some critics said given history, they can’t trust the administration to follow through.

“The NSA has shown time and time again it will seize on any wiggle room in the law, and there’s plenty of that in this bill,” said Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat.

Mr. Snowden, a former government contractor, revealed last year that the National Security Agency was grabbing the numbers, times and durations — known as metadata — of Americans’ phone calls, and storing it for five years, so analysts could try to trace terrorist connections.

In the year since the revelation, Congress has steadily moved to rein the program in.

The House last month passed a bill that would prohibit the government from holding phone records, leaving them in the hands of the phone companies, and would constrain any future government requests to obtain specific data.

The Senate is now considering that legislation.

On Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole laid out how the administration sees its abilities if the bill were to become law. He said bulk data collection would be prohibited under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, under the pen register trap and trace provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and under the provision of law allowing the government to demand records using National Security Letters.

In the case of phone metadata, the government would have to get court approval for a specific selection term, and then go to phone companies to obtain the data.

“We’re trying to end bulk collection but we’re trying to allow enough flexibility to get in times the volumes of records that may be important to do these investigations but still keeping them focused,” Mr. Cole told the Senate intelligence committee.

Some critics have said they fear the government will find a way to distort the search terms to grab bulk information.

Mr. Cole said the law will still allow acquisition of a large amount of data, but won’t allow it to be done indiscriminately.

“If the FBI comes aware that an unidentified terrorist suspect spent several nights at a particular hotel, this bill would allow the FBI to request the hotel’s guest records for those particular nights,” he said.

Asked what assurances there were that administration lawyers and the secret intelligence court wouldn’t conspire to broaden those interpretations, Mr. Cole said lawmakers could rely on the legislative history they had established in saying they intended to end bulk collection.

The Senate panel last year approved a bill to preserve the government’s bulk collection powers, with some changes to require more reports and checks within the system.

But both the public and a majority of Congress appear to be leaning toward ending the government’s bulk collection ability altogether.

That has left the Senate panel deeply divided.

“It seems to me this bill’s fixing a lot of things that aren’t broken,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican and vice chairman of the committee.

Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who led the push for last year’s bill, said she still supports her legislation, but is willing to accept the House bill.

She said at this point it’s a choice between limited powers and no powers at all. Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the government cites as authority for its phone snooping program, will expire June 1, 2015, and without changes it’s unlikely to be renewed, Mrs. Feinstein said.

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

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