The Senate’s intelligence committee chairman said she supports requiring U.S. phone carriers led by Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US) to hold calling records for use by the National Security Agency, which may speed an end to the spy agency’s collection of that information.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had opposed forcing carriers to keep the records, said in an interview in Washington today she backs changes in the NSA program proposed by President Barack Obama. The California Democrat said she wants the White House to send her panel legislative language and that she’ll hold hearings.
“When we talked to the telecoms about holding the data, they did not want to do it,” Feinstein said. “They would have to be compelled to and you have to provide them with immunity, and that becomes complicated.”
The move to end the NSA’s collection program is one of the most tangible responses to a domestic and international backlash over the extent of U.S. spy programs exposed since last June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Feinstein’s changed position is important because her committee will shape and pass legislation to end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records. She said a bill her committee passed last year allowing the NSA’s spying program to continue “probably will not go anywhere.”
The senator said she’s been swayed by Obama to alter her views on the issue, though she still questions how it would work in practice.
“Can you control the staff?” she said. “As opposed to 22 people in the NSA trained, supervised and watched, you’ve got lots of telecoms -- little ones, big ones. I still don’t know whether it can work out. That’s why we’re asking for bill language.”
Feinstein said she supports Obama’s call to require the government to obtain a court order before records held by the carriers can be searched. The phone records include numbers dialed and call durations without content of conversations.
The senator also supports the president’s plan to only permit two “hops” in querying the records, meaning the NSA could only seek numbers called and what lines those contacts dialed.
Obama and Feinstein face opposition. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, top Republican on the Senate intelligence panel, said he opposes having the carriers hold the records. That makes it unclear how quickly a bill could advance.
“It’s pretty explosive,” Chambliss said in an interview in Washington today. “I don’t think that’s the best solution.”
Chambliss said he wants to see legislative language from the White House.
“They may as well get ready for that to be consuming us for the rest of this Congress, because it will take a while to go through,” he said.
While New York-based Verizon supports ending the NSA’s bulk collection, carriers shouldn’t be required to store data for longer than they already do or in different formats, Randal Milch, the company’s general counsel and executive vice president for public policy, said in a March 27 statement. The statement was issued in response to Obama’s plan.
“If Verizon receives a valid request for business records, we will respond in a timely way, but companies should not be required to create, analyze or retain records for reasons other than business purposes,” he said. “It is critical to get the details of this important effort right.”
Momentum favors advocates who want to end the spying, said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and one of the most vocal critics of the extent of government surveillance.
“I’m using every single week to put points on the board in the fight for surveillance reform,” Wyden said in an interview in Washington today.
One of the main legal authorities under which the government conducts surveillance expires in June 2015, he said.
“I’ve already made it clear to the White House that I think what’s important is they stop bulk collection right away, and I’m going to keep insisting on that,” he said.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said Obama is staking out “a false position” by asking Congress to end the spying.
“If he were sincere about it, he could stop the program now,” Paul said in an interview today. “He’s saying he’ll stop it if Congress tells him to stop it. We never told him to start it.”
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