President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency wants to create a massive surveillance database by resurrecting a U.S. telephone records collection program, but some senators questioned what limits he would accept.
CIA nominee Mike Pompeo, currently a Republican representative from Kansas, has called on Congress to reverse its mid-2015 decision to rein in the phone metadata collection program run by the National Security Agency, a sister agency to the CIA that focuses on signals intelligence.
Congress should allow surveillance agencies to collect "all metadata" and combine it with "publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database," Pompeo said in an opinion piece he co-authored in January 2016.
Senators questioned that position during a confirmation hearing Thursday. "So you basically would get the Congress and the country back in the business of collecting millions and millions of phone records from law-abiding people," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. "You would be in favor of a new law collecting all this new data collecting information about the personal lives of our people."
Wyden pressed Pompeo for his proposed limits on such a database. "Are there any boundaries, in your view, to something this sweeping?"
Pompeo avoided describing limits, other than saying the 2015 USA Freedom Act now prohibits a metadata collection program in the U.S. Intelligence agencies should do "all they can, in a lawful, constitutional manner to collect foreign intelligence important to keeping America safe," he said.
But a U.S. metadata collection program wouldn't be foreign intelligence, Wyden said. He asked Pompeo what kind of financial and lifestyle information about U.S. residents would be targeted.
Lawmakers and the U.S. public "demand" that intelligence agencies track threats, Pompeo said.
"If there's ... information someone has out there on a publicly available site, we have an obligation to use that information to keep Americans safe," he said. "If someone's out there on their Facebook page plotting an attack against America, I think you'd find the director of the Central Intelligence Agency grossly negligent if they didn't pursue that information."
Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, asked Pompeo if he planned, as CIA director, to recommend changes to the law to allow more U.S. surveillance. Pompeo said he had no plans to do so.
A handful of senators also asked Pompeo his views on the public's use of encryption, in light of Trump's criticism of Apple for refusing to help the FBI unlock a mass shooter's iPhone. Wyden asked if Pompeo would oppose Trump if the president calls for encryption back doors.
"I take a backseat to no one in protecting American's privacy," Pompeo said. But encryption is a "complicated issue," he added. "I will do my best to understand what it means to the Central Intelligence Agency, what it means to our capacity to keep America safe, and I will represent its interests as my part of a larger effort to make sure we get that policy decision right."
Several senators also asked Pompeo if he believes the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign in an effort to sway the presidential election toward Trump.
Trump questioned that conclusion for months. On Wednesday, he finally said he "thinks" the Russians were behind the election hacks and information leaks.
Pompeo said he has no doubt it was the Russians. "It's pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy," he said. "This was an aggressive action taken by the senior leadership inside of Russian."