Intelligence Official Defends Surveillance in Wake of Disclosure

A top U.S. intelligence official defended the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of U.S. telephone records, saying only the “narrowest, most important use of this data is permitted” by the law.

Robert Litt, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, used a speech in Washington today to describe the legal authority and oversight of the two classified intelligence programs first revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“Security and privacy are not zero-sum,” Litt said in the text of his remarks at the Brookings Institution. “We have an obligation to give full meaning to both: to protect security while at the same time protecting privacy and other constitutional rights.”

Lawmakers and civil liberties advocates have voiced concern -- and filed lawsuits -- related to the privacy implications of the programs. Snowden, who fled the U.S. and is stranded at a Moscow airport, was charged by the Justice Department with espionage and theft of government property.

“I wish that I was here in happier times for the intelligence community,” Litt said. “The last several weeks have seen a series of reckless disclosures of classified information about intelligence activities.”

Terror Threats

The disclosures of the classified details of two programs - - one that collects the phone records of millions of U.S. citizens and another that allows for targeted collection of Internet records of foreigners “reasonably believed” to be outside of the U.S. and suspected of involvement in terrorism - - “threaten to cause long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,” Litt said.

Prompted by the disclosures, Congress is reviewing whether to reauthorize or modify the part of the U.S. Patriot Act, known as section 215, that allows for the bulk collection of the telephone records of millions of U.S. citizens.

Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, told U.S. officials at a congressional hearing this week that without changes, the House did not have the votes to pass a reauthorization of the program when it comes due in 2015.

Michigan Representative John Conyers, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, called on the intelligence services to “stop collecting this information immediately” if it cannot provide a “clear, public explanation” for how the bulk collection of phone records is consistent with the law.

Litt defended the legality of the collection and pushed back on concerns raised by civil liberties groups and some lawmakers that it violated the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable search and seizure of the information of U.S. citizens.

Litt said the phone records are “not subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy for Fourth Amendment purposes” because the information had been voluntarily provided to a third party -- phone companies in these cases.

“I believe that our approach to achieving both security and privacy is effective and appropriate,” he said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.