Congress Spending Bill Demands Details About NSA Spying

U.S. lawmakers are demanding, as part of a spending agreement, that the National Security Agency turn over data about the collection of bulk phone records, including how many Americans had calls intercepted by the agency.

A $1.1 trillion bill unveiled yesterday to fund the federal government through Sept. 30 would require the NSA to provide Congress with unclassified reports detailing how it collects and uses metadata, which refers to phone records, e-mails and other electronic communications.

“This report shall provide, to the greatest extent possible, an estimate of the number of records of United States citizens that have been acquired by NSA as part of the bulk telephone metadata program and the number of such records that have been reviewed by NSA personnel in response to a query,” according to an explanatory statement accompanying the bill.

The agency would have to provide an unclassified report describing all spy programs that collect bulk data, including the cost of the programs, what type of records are being gathered, and what kind of data the agency plans to get. Another unclassified report would be required listing terrorist activities that were disrupted with the aid of bulk phone records, and whether the information could have been obtained other ways.

If the bill is signed into law, it would represent the first measure from Congress requiring the NSA to provide details about spying programs exposed since June by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

Verizon, AT&T

The disclosures about the use of metadata, such as collection of phone data like numbers dialed and call durations, has led lawmakers, privacy advocates and some overseas leaders to urge restraining the NSA and revamping its surveillance programs.

President Barack Obama plans on Jan. 17 to announce his decision on whether to alter spy programs, which could include requiring Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and other phone companies to retain phone records for the government.

A White House advisory panel appointed by Obama concluded in a Dec. 18 report that the NSA 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.

Placing Limits

The review group recommended placing limits on the NSA, including prohibiting the agency from collecting and storing billions of phone records. Instead, the data should be held by Verizon, AT&T and other carriers or another third party and accessed by the NSA only with a court warrant, the panel said.

Group members told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing today they don’t see requiring the U.S. to get a court warrant for access to phone company records as a hindrance to counterterrorism investigations.

“I do not believe that we’re going to add a substantial burden to the government,” Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director and member of the panel, said. Emergency authority to obtain the records might be granted to the government on occasion and then a warrant can be sought, he said.

Bulk phone records may be valuable to stopping a catastrophic terrorist plot inside the U.S. in the future, Morell said.

The panel, established by Obama in August, also includes 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.

Privacy Risks

Stone said requiring companies to hold the records might lead to privacy vulnerabilities, such as making the data vulnerable to hacking. He said, however, the group sees the benefits outweighing the risks.

“Government can do far more harm if it abuses information it has than private entities can,” he said. “There’s always the possibility of someone coming along down the road seeing this as a great opportunity to get political dirt on individuals.”

The spending bill would prohibit funding for the agency to use phone records to conduct targeted surveillance of U.S. citizens, or to intercept the content of phone calls, e-mails and other electronic communications of Americans.

The language essentially restates current law. The NSA is required to obtain a court warrant if a citizen is the target of an investigation. A warrant is also required to intercept the content of phone calls, e-mails or electronic communications.

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