U.S. senators push for changes in NSA data collection

Several U.S. senators will push for changes in the way the National Security Agency collects the telephone records of millions of U.S. residents, with lawmakers saying they will focus on making the NSA program more transparent to the public.

Some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday they will introduce legislation targeting the NSA telephone records collection program.

Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said he will introduce a bill this week that requires the NSA and other agencies to make public the number of U.S. residents they have collected information on, and how many resident have had their information reviewed by federal agents. The bill would also allow companies to disclose the number of surveillance requests they get from government agencies, a change Google, Microsoft and other companies have asked for.

“There is a critical problem at the center of this debate and that’s the lack of transparency around these programs,” Franken said at a committee hearing on NSA surveillance programs. The secrecy around the NSA surveillance programs is “bad for privacy and bad for democracy,” he added.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said he will push for the data collection process at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to include lawyers serving as public advocates who can oppose surveillance requests from the NSA and other agencies. Including opposing lawyers would help create public trust in the program, he said.

But Stewart Baker, a partner at the Steptoe & Johnson law firm and a former NSA general counsel, questioned if adding new public advocates to the surveillance request process would calm public fears about the NSA programs, revealed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

With the public advocate lawyers paid by the U.S. government, some critics may still argue the process is “really just a sham,” Baker said.

Even Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and vocal supporter of NSA surveillance programs, called for the agency to make its efforts more transparent. The agency should reduce the number of years it keeps phone records from five to two or three and should release more information about the number of times a company has to give up records, she said.

Civil liberties groups

Committee members didn’t call for the NSA to abolish the surveillance programs, however. Civil liberties groups, however, called for wider changes to the programs, beyond transparency and new public advocates in the court process.

“It’s become clear that the NSA is engaged in far-reaching, intrusive and unlawful surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and electronic communications,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a lawsuit against the NSA. An overhaul of the program and the law behind it is needed, he said.

On Wednesday, more than 100 digital rights and other organizations released a list of 13 principles related to human rights and electronic surveillance. Governments must “limit surveillance to that which is strictly and demonstrably necessary to achieve a legitimate aim,” and they must conduct surveillance only when there’s a “high degree of probability that a serious crime has been or will be committed,” the document said.

Among the groups signing the human rights document were the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, the Free Software Foundation Europe and Reporters Without Borders.

Several members of the committee, both Republicans and Democrats, questioned the breadth of the NSA telephone records collection program, with senators asking how the NSA can classify nearly all U.S. telephone records as relevant to an antiterrorism investigation, as required in the Patriot Act. The hearing largely ignored the NSA’s so-called Prism program, which collects the content of email and other Internet communications of targets believed to be outside the U.S.

The U.S. government needs to find a better balance between security needs and privacy, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and committee chairman.

“We could have more security if we strip-searched everybody who came into every building in America, but we’re not going to do that,” Leahy sad. “We could have more security if ... we put a wiretap on everybody’s cell phone in America, if we search everybody’s home. But there are certain areas of our own privacy that we Americans expect.”

Other senators defended Prism and the phone records collection, saying they have helped keep the U.S. safe from terrorist attacks. The phone records collection program doesn’t collect the content of phone calls and several courts have ruled that the collection of business records doesn’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protecting U.S. residents from unreasonable searches and seizures, said Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican.

“I’m inclined to think all of these actions are consistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States,” he said.

The phone records program has played an important part in several antiterrorism investigations, added Sean Joyce, deputy director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Terrorists are “trying to harm America,” he said. “They’re trying to strike America. We need all these tools.”

Still, representatives of the NSA and U.S. Department of Justice said they are open to making changes to the records collection program so that the public can have more confidence in the process. President Barack Obama’s administration is open to changes that would make the programs more transparent to the public, said Robert Litt, general counsel of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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