Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. National Security Agency didn’t abuse its authority in collecting the bulk phone records of millions of Americans and the spy program should continue under a new structure, said Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director.
The collection of information such as numbers dialed and call durations is important to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Morell said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program today.
“There was no abuse here,” said Morell, who served on an advisory panel picked by President Barack Obama that recommended limits on data collection and storage in a report released Dec. 18. “They were doing exactly what they were told to do.”
Obama and U.S. lawmakers are debating whether to restrain spy programs after documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the agency’s surveillance activities.
Much of the debate has focused on the collection of phone metadata, under which the NSA receives phone records from U.S. telecommunications companies and stores them in a database that can be queried to determine if a suspected terrorist overseas has called someone in the U.S.
The phone records program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and information needed to disrupt terrorist plots “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional” court orders, the five-member Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology said in its report.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon also ruled Dec. 16 that collecting bulk phone records is probably illegal, allowing a lawsuit to go forward alleging it violates the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S.’s founding fathers “would be astounded to see what NSA and others are doing,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who heads the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Leahy said he’ll hold a hearing on Jan. 14 on the review panel’s findings.
Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” today that lawmakers need to protect privacy while maintaining national security.
“There’s a fine balance,” he said.
Growing up, children hear about how “big brother is watching you,” he said. “Now we found out that Big Brother is truly watching you.”
Snowden, who is in Russia under temporary asylum, leaked records about the spy programs to news organizations starting in June. Since then, there have been calls by U.S. allies, members of Congress, civil liberties groups and companies such as Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. to provide more transparency and scale back some of the operations.
Morell, the former Central Intelligence Agency official, said there’s a misperception that the review group didn’t find value in the phone records program. NSA queries the database of records about 200 times a year, resulting in a dozen or 15 tips that are passed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for review, Morell said.
The review group concluded that phone companies or a third party -- possibly a nonprofit consortium -- should store the phone records rather than the NSA.
“The government should not hold this data any longer,” Morell said. “We will leave it an open question who should.”
The NSA would be required to go to the secretive court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to get a warrant to query the data, according to the review group.
Having a nongovernmental entity store the data could increase the time it takes for the government to access the records, possibly up to a week, Morell said. The panel recommended that there be an exception for emergencies, he said.
“We don’t think we have significantly undermined the government’s ability to protect the country,” he said. “While at the same time, we think we’ve enhanced privacy and civil liberties significantly.”
The review panel also included Richard Clarke, a former U.S. cybersecurity adviser; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who once worked in the administration; and Peter Swire, who served on Obama’s National Economic Council.
The NSA has tapped fiber-optic cables abroad to siphon data from Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., circumvented or cracked encryption, and covertly introduced weaknesses and back doors into coding, according to reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper based on documents leaked by Snowden.
Obama said at a Dec. 20 news conference that he will act in January on recommendations of the review panel. Some U.S. lawmakers also have introduced legislation to restrain the NSA, including prohibiting the collection of bulk phone records.
The bulk surveillance program was authorized by President George W. Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, and has been defended as “critically important” to national security, according to records declassified on Dec. 20 by National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
There may be more privacy violations if companies maintain phone records instead of government agencies, Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the NSA has “overreached” in an interview on the ABC program. The U.S. needs to “quickly move to adopt” recommendations made by the review panel to change the way it conducts surveillance.
Gathering phone records of innocent Americans is an invasion of privacy, he said.
“The potential for abuse is always there, and Americans have always erred on the side of protecting our privacy,” Udall said.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who serves on the House intelligence panel and House Homeland Security Committee, disagreed that the system isn’t closely monitored, saying not everyone “has to know what a spy agency is doing.”
The NSA is “indispensable” to national security and its collapse would be “calamitous” to our country, King said on NBC. “What do we reign in?” King asked. “There has not been one abuse cited.”
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