Washington to blame if NSA program lapses, spy head warns

Washington to blame if NSA program lapses, spy head warns
© Lauren Schneiderman

Lawmakers in Congress will be on the hook if they allow a spying program to expire, Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperFormer intelligence chiefs slam Trump for removing officials Think this coronavirus crisis is bad? The next could be worse — if we don't act now Was President Trump spied on as part of Carter Page wiretapping? MORE warned on Monday.

If legislators aren’t able to reauthorize an expiring portion of the Patriot Act that authorizes a contested National Security Agency program, they should be held responsible, Clapper said.

ADVERTISEMENT

“If that tool is taken away from us ... and some untoward incident happens that could have been thwarted if we had had it, I hope that everyone involved in that decision assumes the responsibility and it not be blamed, if we have another failure, exclusively on the intelligence community,” he said.

On June 1, the section of the law that allows the NSA to collect bulk records about people’s phone calls by the time is set to expire. The program, which collects “metadata” about people’s calls but not the actual content of their conversations, was the most controversial program revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 and has been at the center of major NSA reform efforts ever since.

Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder last year endorsed legislation that would have ended the program as it currently exists and forced the NSA to get phone records on specific individuals from private companies after obtaining a court order. A version of the legislation passed through the House, but the Senate bill came two votes shy of overcoming a procedural hurdle, dashing the hopes of reformers. 

Now, civil liberties advocates have eyed the June 1 sunset date as their best chance to force reform. Without major reforms, some lawmakers have said they are prepared to let the program expire completely.

Forcing the NSA to go to private companies for the records is “the only thing that’s realistic if we’re going to have this at all,” Clapper said, while also acknowledging the possibility that it might indeed expire.

“In the end, the Congress giveth and the Congress taketh away.”

At the same time, Clapper seemed to call for a legislative mandate requiring phone companies to hold onto phone records for a specific period of time, which last year’s bill did not call for and which could stoke ire among NSA critics.

“You do need some historical data if you’re going to discern a pattern,” Clapper said.