WASHINGTON – National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander again defended the agency’s extensive metadata program that has collected phone records of countless Americans Thursday, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee that NSA analysts are as concerned about privacy and civil liberties issues as other Americans.
The committee appeared likely to recommend limits on the program. Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., emphasized the need to “change but preserve” limits on the metadata program that she says has been misrepresented as a surveillance program in the past.
Possible provisions Feinstein laid out included prohibiting the collection of the content of phone calls, reducing the length of time records can be held and queried and adding a requirement that each NSA review of a record be required to have a “reasonable and articulable” suspicion that the phone number is in fact associated with terrorism.
Feinstein also expressed the desire to increase transparency by also requiring annual reports specifying the number of phone calls determined to have met that “reasonable, articulable” suspicions standard as well as records citing the number of queries conducted each year along with the number of queries that result in an investigation.
Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., however, have introduced a bill to end the collection program entirely, and are looking to take action as soon as possible.
The most heated argument Thursday came from Wyden, demanding answers of Director of Intelligence James Clapper, NSA Agency Director General Keith Alexander and Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Wyden expressed his frustration with the intelligence leadership’s lack of honesty with the American public.
“There’s been a loss of trust in our intelligence apparatus here at home,” Wyden said. “It’s going to take a lot of time to rebuild.”
ButClapper expressed concern about “overcorrecting” the in-place systems.
“If we had an alarm bell that went off when one terrorist communicated with another terrorist, our job would be a lot easier,” Clapper said. “But unfortunately that doesn’t exist.”
Alexander attempted to bridge the broad gap between preserving Americans’ privacy and gathering needed intelligence.
“Terrorists take advantage of familiar services…Gmail, Facebook, Twitter…technology has made it easy for them,” Alexander said.
Defending the current system, Alexander said that there have only been 12 cases of willful violations over the past 10 years with – to his knowledge – no willful violations putting Americans’ individual privacies at stake.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said that since Sept. 11, America is in a “different kind of war.”
“In the new world of international terrorism, our first line of defense is intelligence,” King said. “I happen to believe that collecting these records is vitally important.”
Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W. Va., said he favored amending the current program.
“You don’t build a Roman forum and then build another one next door just because you found a mistake,” Rockefeller said. “You make amendments as you need to do that.”