By Jennifer Martinez - 06/18/13 07:36 PM EDT
"What are the prospects for changing the program such that rather than the government acquiring the vast amounts of metadata, the telecommunications companies retain the metadata and then only on those 300 or so occasions where it needs to be queried, you're querying the telecommunications providers for whether they have those business records related to a reasonable articulable suspicion of foreign terrorist connection?" Schiff asked NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the agency's surveillance programs.
The NSA and the FBI are currently weighing the pros and cons on how the current framework of the phone tracking program works and will provide recommendations to both chambers on Schiff's proposal, Alexander said.
But the NSA chief said there are concerns that the government wouldn't be able thwart a terrorist attack quickly if telecom providers are the only ones who store the metadata from call records. The government would have to follow a new set of steps to obtain permission to access that data and then approach telecom providers to retrieve it, he said.
"If you leave it at the service providers, you have a separate set of issues in terms of how you actually get the information, then how you have to go back and get that information, and how you follow it on and the legal authority … to compel them to keep these records for a certain period of time," Alexander said.
"The concern is speed in crisis. How do we do this? And so that's what we need to bring back to you, and then I think have this discussion here and let people know where we are on it," he added.
The NSA program collects data from providers about the length of phone calls and the telephone numbers used, but does not access the content of people's conversations or customers' identities.
Following the hearing, Schiff said in a statement that he was "encouraged" by the intelligence community's commitment to "pursuing this idea in earnest." The California Democrat, a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, said he has raised this suggestion in previous years.
The NSA's secret surveillance programs have come under scrutiny from lawmakers after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked details about them to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
During the hearing, Alexander argued that these programs have thwarted more than 50 potential terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.
"We can't lose these [intelligence] tools," the NSA chief told Intelligence Committee members.