Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the U.S. Senate’s intelligence committee, said she is “open to changes” that would end the National Security Agency’s collection of bulk phone records.
The California Democrat has been one of the strongest defenders of the surveillance program leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. She said in a statement today she would consider “alternatives that preserve the operational effectiveness of the call records program and can address privacy concerns.”
Feinstein, in her leadership position among lawmakers, will play a critical role in deciding what changes are made.
Some lawmakers support having carriers including Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US) and AT&T Inc. (T:US), rather than the NSA, hold the records. The agency now obtains the data -- records of numbers dialed and call durations without content of conversations -- through court orders that are periodically renewed.
Feinstein’s statement came a week before the deadline set by President Barack Obama to get recommendations on ending the NSA’s role in collecting and storing the phone records.
Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in January to develop options for a new approach.
“Since the speech, the interagency has been developing options consistent with the president’s direction,” Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in an e-mail. “We will also consult with Congress to seek their views on this issue, and then seek congressional authorization, as needed.” She declined to comment on when Obama might announce a decision.
Under the program, the NSA compels Verizon and other carriers to turn over records on billions of users globally through orders from a court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The current court order expires March 28, when it could be renewed for another three months.
Representatives C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, and Adam Schiff, a California Democrat on the panel, support having the phone companies hold the records.
“It’s more protective of privacy than the government acquiring a vast amount of call records that it doesn’t need,” Schiff said in a phone interview. “The phone companies already keep this data, so it doesn’t impose a new obligation on the carriers.”
Ruppersberger is working with Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence panel, on a bill that would require the government to obtain a court warrant to search phone records held by individual carriers, according to a House congressional aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about negotiations.
The phone companies would conduct the searches. They would send the results to the government and would be compensated at the prevailing industry rate, the aide said. Carriers wouldn’t be required to retain the records any longer than they normally do, the aide said.
Schiff said such a bill would pass in Congress because the NSA’s collection of bulk phone records is so unpopular. The authorization for the program expires in June 2015, a deadline that is forcing lawmakers to act, Schiff said.
Feinstein, in her statement, said she looks forward to reviewing recommendations to end the NSA program.
“The president is looking at alternatives and modifications to the current program that would continue to provide the intelligence community with key information about the communications of suspected terrorists and their associates plotting inside the United States,” she said.
Tradeoffs must be considered in revising the program, such as losing agility in counterterrorism investigations, former NSA Director Michael Hayden said in an interview.
Intelligence agencies may have to adapt to changes, given the controversy over NSA spying, Hayden said.
“If it’s the only way the program survives, go for it,” he said.
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