By Justin Sink - 03/30/14 10:10 AM EDT
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Sunday she was open to advancing President Obama’s proposal to end the government collection of telephone metadata, but she predicted the controversial nature of the program could make reform efforts a steep climb in Congress.
“The question comes, can a bill be passed? It’s very controversial. There are a lot of different views right now,” Feinstein said during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Can people come together to pass a bill?”
Earlier this week, the White House announced it would pursue legislation eliminating the National Security Agency's collection of information about Americans’ telephone calls, instead mandating that the records would remain with phone companies.
Government investigators seeking to search the phone records would be required to obtain an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and their queries would be limited to two “hops” from a terror suspect. Phone companies would only be required to hold data for 18 months — as they are now — and not the 5 years that the NSA kept phone records.
At a press conference at a nuclear summit in the Netherlands, Obama said his proposal "ensures that government is not in possession of that bulk data."
"I want to emphasize once again that some of the dangers that people hypothesized when it came to bulk data, there were clear safeguards against," he said. "But I recognize that people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data. This proposal that's been presented to me would eliminate that concern."
Feinstein said that she believed the end of government metadata collection, judicial review and new limits on how long records were held and how extensively they could be searched were all good suggestions. But, she said, she wanted to see precise language from the administration on how they would change the program.
“The president has said he would send us a bill, and I hold him to this word, because it’s very important that we receive bill language as to exactly what the administration intends,” Feinstein said.
She said she saw two potential problems: whether telecom companies could be trusted to keep secret information about the data and searches, and whether Congress would need to include “liability immunity” indemnifying the companies from lawsuits.
“If this is held by a large number of telecoms with their people doing the actual querying, is privacy as controlled as it is with 22 vetted people at the National Security Agency who are supervised and watched with everything they do here?” Feinstein asked.
She also noted that, when she had discussed the possibility of holding the data previously with telecom companies, they were not willing to play a role in maintaining the database because of legal concerns.
Ultimately, Feinstein said, Congress might hesitate to act because the program as currently constructed sunsets next year.
“Whether we take action right away remains to be seen,” she said. “I am open to that action.”