Phone data collection declassified in effort to assuage Capitol Hill

The director of national intelligence on Wednesday declassified several documents about the government’s phone data collection program as the Obama administration scrambled to assuage growing outrage on Capitol Hill and among the public over National Security Agency surveillance.

On Thursday, President Obama will meet with a group of key lawmakers — both critics and supporters — to discuss the surveillance activities, according to a White House official.

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander will also return to Capitol Hill to answer House lawmakers’ questions in a classified briefing Thursday before they leave for the August recess.


The administration’s steps are an attempt to show they take the privacy criticisms seriously, yet officials are also seeking to defend their overall stance by highlighting the protections that are in place. The efforts come as lawmakers are considering a range of proposals to curb the NSA’s powers.

The administration’s efforts at reassurance faced another challenge with the release on Wednesday of the latest leak from former government contractor Edward Snowden. The leak, published by The Guardian, purported to show how analysts search databases of people’s email, online chat and browsing histories without prior authorization.

In a meeting with Senate Democrats on Wednesday, Obama said he is willing to discuss potential reforms to the NSA. 

“He said he’s willing to get together with members who are concerned about it and try to talk about a potential way forward,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyCongress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B Senators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Tell our troops: 'Your sacrifice wasn't in vain' MORE (D-Conn.) explained.

The White House official said Obama would discuss the NSA’s programs on Thursday with eight lawmakers: Sens. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook MORE (D-Ill.), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFederal watchdog calls on Congress, Energy Dept. to overhaul nuclear waste storage process Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Republicans caught in California's recall trap MORE (D-Calif.), Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissEffective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests Live coverage: Georgia Senate runoffs Trump, Biden face new head-to-head contest in Georgia MORE (R-Ga.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money — House pushes toward infrastructure vote Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — EU calls out Russian hacking efforts aimed at member states Why Democrats opposing Biden's tax plan have it wrong MORE (D-Ore.) and Mark UdallMark Emery UdallKennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' MORE (D-Colo.) and Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) and James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).

The lawmakers include the heads of the Intelligence committees, who have vocally supported the NSA, as well as some of the agency’s leading critics in both the House and Senate.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, four top intelligence officials argued that the NSA’s surveillance programs are critical for combating terrorism.

The officials also made a major concession by saying lawmakers should consider designating an attorney to advocate for privacy rights before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. Currently, FISA court judges review only the arguments from the government in favor of surveillance programs.

Deputy Attorney Gen. James Cole said that creating an adversarial process at the FISA court should be “part of the debate” over the surveillance programs. 

“There’s obviously issues we’ll have to work through as to clearances and classifications and who would be there and what their role would be,” he said. “But those are the kinds of discussions we do need to have.”

The administration’s attempts to address privacy concerns come one week after the House narrowly defeated an amendment from Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashDemocrats defend Afghan withdrawal amid Taliban advance Vietnam shadow hangs over Biden decision on Afghanistan Kamala Harris and our shameless politics MORE (R-Mich.) that would have curtailed the NSA’s controversial collection of phone records. It drew opposition from both parties’ leaders, national security officials and the White House, but still attracted the support of 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats, falling just seven votes short of passage. 

Alexander was quickly dispatched to Capitol Hill to address lawmakers’ concerns ahead of the vote last week, and now he is returning Thursday before they go home for the month-long recess. Many lawmakers are anticipating difficult questions from constituents.

The close vote has left privacy advocates feeling confident about their chances for enacting legislation to reel in the NSA. Numerous lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyPhotos of the Week: Renewable energy, gymnast testimonies and a Met Gala dress Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' MORE (D-Vt.), have proposed legislation that would limit the agency’s surveillance powers, increase court oversight or require additional disclosures.

Even Sensenbrenner, the author of the Patriot Act, has said the phone record collection program has gone too far. 

At a hearing earlier this month, he suggested that Congress would refuse to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2015 unless the NSA curbs the program.

Feinstein, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said Wednesday that she was happy with what Obama’s told senators in the closed meeting about the importance of the NSA’s programs.

“There’s no question there are serious threats,” she said. “I think we can make some changes, and we will.” 

The first document leaked by Snowden was a FISA court order requiring a phone company to turn over records on all of its customers to the NSA. Many lawmakers and privacy advocates were outraged at the scope of the dragnet surveillance.

On Wednesday, the director of national intelligence declassified another FISA court order, this one with details about court-imposed limitations on the NSA’s use of the data.

The records include phone numbers, call times and call duration, but not the contents of the conversations.

The declassified court order allows the NSA to examine a caller’s history only if officials determine that there are “facts giving rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the number is associated with terrorism.

Only authorized NSA officials are allowed to access the phone data, and the data must be destroyed within five years.

Although the court does not need to approve each query of the phone database, the NSA is required to submit a report on its activities to the court every 30 days.

But the privacy protections, which had already been publicly discussed, are unlikely to appease the agency’s critics. 

“The order shows that the NSA use of the telephone calling information proceeds on autopilot — without FISA Court intervention — once a broad order is issued. The government, not the FISA Court, decides whether a particular person’s phone number, and the phone numbers of everyone associated with that person, will be investigated through queries of this vast database,” Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the latest leaks from Snowden “call into question the truth of some of the representations that intelligence officials have made to the public and Congress. 

“Intelligence officials have said repeatedly that NSA analysts do not have the authority to sift indiscriminately through Americans’ sensitive information, but this new report suggests they do,” he said.

Justin Sink and Alex Bolton contributed to this report.