Panel to NSA: Change your ways — or else

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Lawmakers on Tuesday bluntly warned the Obama administration it will lose its sweeping surveillance powers if major changes aren’t made at the National Security Agency (NSA).

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Members of the House Judiciary Committee said Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is set to expire in the summer of 2015, will be dissolved unless the administration proposes broad changes to the NSA’s collection of phone records.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who wrote the Patriot Act and its two reauthorizations, told Deputy Attorney General James Cole that the administration was on the hook to find a workable alternative.

“Section 215 expires in June of next year,” Sensenbrenner said. “Unless Section 215 is fixed, you, Mr. Cole, and the intelligence community will end up getting nothing because I am absolutely confident that there are not the votes in this Congress to reauthorize 215.”

He added that the extent of the government’s surveillance programs was a “shock” to him.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told Cole that the department had “better come in with very specific recommendations” or else risk losing the entirety of the program.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the administration risked losing all of Section 215. He said the panel needs recommendations from the administration in order to act.

“Unless this committee acts and acts soon, I fear we will lose valuable counterterrorism tools along with the surveillance programs many of us find objectionable,” he said.

The Section 215 program collects data about the numbers people dial as well as the length and frequency of their calls, but not the content of the calls themselves. The collected information is known as metadata.

Outside review boards have determined that the program was not essential to preventing any terrorist attack, but Cole on Tuesday called it a “very useful tool.”

“This is a tool that gives us one of those pieces of information, the connections from one person to another,” he said.

He also, however, said Justice was looking at possible alternatives.

“Although we continue to believe the program is lawful, we recognize that it has raised significant controversial and legitimate privacy concerns, and as I have said, we are working on developing a new approach as the president has directed,” Cole said.

Obama last month called for a “new approach” on the program, but left out many of the details, including how data might be collected and stored and who would hold it.

A White House review group suggested that an outside organization or private phone companies be required to store the phone data for government officials to be able to search.

Privacy advocates have said that option would do nothing to ease concerns about people’s privacy. Telecommunications companies also have objected, saying that being forced to store their customers' data on behalf of the government would hurt their credibility.

“Transferring storage to private companies could raise more privacy concerns than it solves,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who noted that it could easily be stolen by hackers. “We need look no further than last month’s Target breach or last week’s Yahoo breach to know that private information held by private companies is susceptible to cyberattacks.”

Cole said that the Justice Department had not yet developed other options for storing the data, should Congress decide to take it out of government hands but not keep it with private companies.

“That’s the process we’re going through right now,” he said.

A majority of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a small independent agency created to check government surveillance, found last month that the data collection program “lacks a viable foundation in the law,” said David Medine, the board’s chairman.

“The benefits of the program are modest at best. They are outweighed by the privacy and civil liberties consequences,” he said.

Along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sensenbrenner has introduced the USA Freedom Act. The bill has garnered bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, including more than half of the lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee. The bill would end the phone metadata collection program and make other sweeping reforms to the country’s surveillance programs.

Conyers said on Tuesday that Goodlatte should “bring this bill up for consideration before the House Judiciary Committee as soon as possible, because our mandate is clear.”

Cole told lawmakers that the Justice Department had not developed a position on the bill.

“The Department of Justice is a big place,” he told Sensebrenner, “and at this point we have not taken a position on the Freedom Act.”

“I would urge you to hurry up and get the big place together,” Sensenbrenner responded. 

A White House spokeswoman told The Hill that the administration is still reviewing the USA Freedom Act.
 
“We look forward to continuing to work with Congress to take steps to reform our intelligence programs in a way that gives the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, while preserving important tools that keep us safe, and that addresses significant questions that have been raised overseas,” Caitlin Hayden wrote in an email.