US Prepares for Coming Changes to NSA Powers

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama's national security team argued Wednesday to keep its sweeping domestic surveillance powers intact, even as it acknowledged some limitations appear inevitable.

The Obama administration faces unexpectedly harsh opposition from both top political parties over a once-secret program that sweeps up the phone records of every American, and it says it wants to work with lawmakers who want to put limits on that authority.

"We are open to re-evaluating this program in ways that can perhaps provide greater confidence and public trust that this is in fact a program that achieves both privacy protections and national security," Robert Litt, counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told skeptical members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The hearing came one week after a surprisingly close vote in the House of Representatives that would have killed the National Security Agency phone surveillance program. It barely survived, but lawmakers promised that change was coming.

This national debate of privacy versus national security began when former government systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing NSA programs that store years of phone records on every American.

That revelation prompted the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The administration intended to keep the telephone program a secret forever, and few in Congress had shown any interest in limiting it. Snowden's leaks abruptly changed that.

"We have a lot of good information out there that helps the American public understand these programs, but it all came out late," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said in a rebuke of government secrecy.

The telephone program is authorized under a provision of the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after the 2001 attacks against the U.S.

The Obama administration says phone records are the only records being collected in bulk under that law, but it has left open the ability to create similar databases of people's credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.

Several lawmakers promised bills that would provide tighter controls or more transparency. Proposals include eliminating the FBI's ability to seize data without a court order, changing the way judges are appointed to the surveillance court, and appointing an attorney to argue against the government in secret proceedings before that court.

Another would force the government to reveal how many Americans have had their information swept up in surveillance.

On Wednesday, the national security establishment sought to reassure Congress that its surveillance powers were rigorously monitored and narrowly crafted.

The administration declassified documents about the telephone program. But the redacted documents show only broadly how NSA officials use the data.

For the first time, however, the government acknowledged publicly that using what it calls "hop analysis," it can analyze the phone calls of millions of Americans in the hunt for just one suspected terrorist. That's because NSA analysts can look at a suspect's phone records and also the records of everyone he calls, everyone who calls those people and everyone who calls those people.

If the average person calls 40 unique people, three-hop analysis could allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.

"What's being described as a very narrow program is really a very broad program," said Sen. Richard Durbin.

John Inglis, the NSA's deputy director, said that in practice, such broad analysis was rare.

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