Government spy agencies plan to deliver a series of recommendations to President Obama this week to change the way they stores data about people’s phone records, according to National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander.
“The good news is we have some ideas that we’re going to push out to the interagency that they’re working to get to the president next week,” Alexander said Friday at an event sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“We’re pushing that. We think there’s a couple better things we can do that will help this.”
The program collects phone numbers of virtually all calls, as well as the time and duration of the calls, but not the content of the calls. NSA agents can only search for details about a phone number and the numbers it has dialed when there is a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a person is connected to a terrorist.
“There are restrictions on how we can use it and how we search that data by the court,” Alexander said, defending the current program on Friday.
According to the NSA chief, just 22 agents can determine whether or not that suspicion exists to search the records. A team of 35 analysts is then responsible for looking at the records.
“When people say ‘Are you spying on everyone in the world?’ One, we don’t have that many people,” Alexander said. “And two, it’s not our mission, and it’s wrong to put that out there.”
In his speech last month, Obama suggested that the database of phone records could be transferred out of government hands. NSA agents would be able to search the database with a court order.
Plans to have either a private company or a new third party hold the records have run into opposition from both civil liberties advocates and phone companies, who don’t want the responsibility of having to keep the records.
Earlier this month, reports emerged that the NSA may only be collecting records about 20 or 30 percent of the total amount of phone calls in the country. Critics have said that the disclosure should prompt the end of the program, because it proves that it is not a critical national security effort.
Alexander in the speech said that his agency did not collect all call records, but he did not confirm the reported amount of collected information.
“I can’t tell you that that number is true, but I can tell you that its not where we want it to be,” he said.
“But it has been sufficient to go after the key targets that we’re going after.”