Feinstein Pushes Court Approvals for NSA Phone Searches

Senate intelligence committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein said she supports requiring court approval for all searches of U.S. telephone records, setting the stage for a legislative fight over how to rein in the powers of the National Security Agency.

A bill introduced last week by leaders of the House intelligence committee wouldn’t require the government to get prior court approval when directing phone companies to search their records.

Feinstein, a California Democrat, endorsed a proposal by the Obama administration that would require all NSA records requests to go through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

“A positive element that would come into this is that there would be a court approval of every query,” Feinstein said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program today. “I would support that.”

The debate over court review could complicate efforts to pass legislation this year aimed at barring the government from stockpiling phone records through an intelligence collection program disclosed by former federal contractor Edward Snowden.

Both the House bill and the administration have proposed requiring phone companies to hold the data instead, while giving the National Security Agency access to those records when requested.

The precise procedure for such a records search will play out in coming months as Congress debates the bill.

‘It’s Wrong’

Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said last week that requiring prior court approval for a records search is “nuts” and would create a new legal standard.

“I think it’s wrong to have a better standard for a terrorist living overseas than it is a U.S. citizen who may be engaged in criminal activity in the United States,” said Rogers, who said he will retire from Congress at the beginning of next year.

Snowden’s revelations about U.S. surveillance practices have set off a global debate over the trade-offs between privacy and security. Documents he leaked showed that the NSA acted to weaken standards used to encrypt and protect data, hacked into fiber optic cables abroad to steal information from Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., and possibly infected millions of computers globally with malware.

Both Rogers and Feinstein have supported the NSA, and are proposing changes that would limit, not eliminate, these programs.

‘Very Controversial’

“Can a bill be passed? It is very controversial,” Feinstein said. “There are a lot of different views right now.”

While declaring herself open to a bill, Feinstein said she’s concerned about potential privacy violations if phone data are held by a large number of companies instead of being “controlled as it is with 22 vetted people at the National Security Agency who are supervised and watched with everything they do here.”

Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency who served on a White House review panel to recommend NSA changes, said such a concern may be unwarranted.

“The phone companies have held this data all along, so there’s no additional risk in them taking this on,” Morell said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction here, and I think there will be some sort of compromise” between the administration’s proposal and the House bill, Morell said.

Privacy Advocates

Some privacy advocates in Congress are pushing for greater changes.

“I believe the president ought to make the transition right away” to ending the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.

Wyden also called for fixing a “backdoor search loophole” in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that he said “allows the government to look at the e-mails of law-abiding Americans.”

Separately, Feinstein also renewed her allegations that the CIA improperly hacked into a special computer network set up for her committee to investigate the agency’s treatment of suspected terrorists during President George W. Bush’s administration.

Apology Sought

“I have asked for an apology and statement that it would never happen again,” Feinstein said. “I have not received this to this day. That is of concern to me.”

CIA Director John Brennan has said that his agency didn’t hack into the computers used by the Senate committee.

Asked about a CIA claim that the agency had legitimate access to Senate computers as part of an “audit capability,” Feinstein said, “that is not correct,” while declining to elaborate.

Tensions have been building over several years as the intelligence committee has sought to complete a report on actions by the CIA involving “black site” detention facilities and “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning, in the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The practices were ordered stopped after President Barack Obama took office.

Feinstein has said that during 2010 the CIA improperly removed more than 900 documents, or pages of documents, initially provided for review by the committee’s staff. They were removed without the panel’s knowledge, she said.

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