Holder: ‘We’re not done’ on NSA reform

The Obama administration is promising to come back to Congress with additional reforms of government spying operations.

Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the White House’s recent legislative proposal to end the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of phone records would not be its last word on the surveillance.

ADVERTISEMENT
Additional reforms, he said, would be on their way to Congress once he and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper decide how to move forward, as President Obama directed in a January speech.

“We have begun the process that the president gave us in that regard. We are not finished with the work that we are doing,” Holder said.

Critics of the NSA’s surveillance have said that the White House’s plans to end the phone records program, unveiled last month, seemed too limited.

“They focus on one program used to access one database collected under one legal authority,” said Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel. “To me the problem is far more complicated than that narrow lens implies.”

The prime subject under review before the administration is Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which allows the NSA to collect information about “non-U.S. persons” who are “reasonably believed” to be outside American borders. The law is used to justify the NSA’s PRISM program, which taps into the servers of nine major U.S. Internet companies including Facebook, Google and other giants, and collects content like emails and photos.

Though the law specifically prohibits targeting Americans, Clapper recently admitted in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that the effort sometimes used “U.S. person identifiers” to gather “foreign intelligence targeting non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S.” 

Lawmakers and privacy advocates were incensed at the revelation, which they called a back door that lets the agency spy on Americans.

Holder on Tuesday said the administration wants to reform the law, but did not go into details about how.

“Our hope would be to come to Congress with a proposal and to work with Congress ... to make sure that we have the necessary procedures in place so we are ensuring that only non-U.S. persons outside the United States are targeted, to minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons,” Holder said.

“I don’t think we’re yet at a position to come to Congress with a concrete proposal. Once we get to that point ... we will be coming back to Congress with that proposal.”

The work could be helped by a study from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a small government watchdog agency.

The panel, which called the NSA’s bulk phone records program illegal, is currently working on an analysis of the Section 702 law, set to be released in coming months.