Lawmakers warn 'clock is ticking' on surveillance reforms

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 4, 2014 6:34pm EST

A National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility is seen in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 kms) south of Salt Lake City, Utah, December 17, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

A National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility is seen in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 kms) south of Salt Lake City, Utah, December 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart

Related Topics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers warned on Tuesday that time is running out to make specific reforms to the National Security Agency's telephone surveillance program and promised Congress would act if the Obama administration does not.

The House Judiciary Committee examined recommendations for reforms to the U.S. government's electronic spying programs after revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden outraged American privacy advocates and strained relations with U.S. allies.

Members of the committee focused on the most sweeping of the spy programs, the bulk collection of telephone records, criticizing its broad reach and calling for stronger limits.

"It's a vacuum cleaner," said U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin. "And that's why there has been such outrage both here and overseas."

Sensenbrenner said Section 215, the portion of the USA Patriot Act under which the so-called metadata telephone program is operated, is due to expire in June 2015.

"There hasn't been anything else that's come from the administration and elsewhere to deal with this issue and the clock, sir, is ticking and it is ticking rapidly," he said.

Sensenbrenner asked Deputy Attorney General James Cole whether the Justice Department supported the bipartisan legislation he co-sponsored, the USA Freedom Act, which has been endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The Department of Justice is a big place, senator, and at this point we have not taken a position on the Freedom Act," Cole replied.

The "USA Freedom Act" is one of several pieces of legislation seeking to curb the NSA's surveillance powers making their way through Congress. It would eliminate bulk metadata collection by the NSA entirely.

Sensenbrenner was a primary author of the Patriot Act, enacted after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

"Congress never did intend to allow bulk collection when it passed Section 215 and no fair reading of the text would allow for this program," he said.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, seconded his Republican colleague's comments and said it was critical to reform the program quickly.


President Barack Obama announced limited reforms last month to rein in the vast collection of Americans' phone data in a speech in which he banned U.S. eavesdropping on leaders of friendly or allied nations.

One of the biggest changes was an overhaul of the government's handling of bulk telephone "metadata" - lists of millions of phone calls made by Americans that show which numbers were called and when.

Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. intelligence community to report back to him before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28 on how to preserve the necessary capabilities of the program, without the government holding the metadata.

But Cole and representatives from the two panels that made recommendations to the president on the spying programs did not offer details on how a third party, or the telephone companies themselves, could store such a trove of data.

"We're also trying to think outside the box and see if there are any other options that we can come up with," Cole told the committee.

Committee members from both parties expressed concerns about transferring storage of the metadata to private companies or third parties.

Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said transferring the metadata's storage to private companies could raise more privacy concerns than it solves.

"We need look no further than last month's Target breach or last week's Yahoo breach to know that private information held by private companies is susceptible to cyberattacks," Goodlatte, the committee chairman, said in his opening statement, referring to two recent, high-profile hacking incidents.

He complained that Obama did not clearly articulate why the information provided by the program was so valuable in thwarting terrorism plots.

Representative Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia, cited a more daunting challenge for the U.S. government.

"The problem is trust. In my district and in many others, NSA has become not a three-letter word but a four-letter word ... How do we restore that?" he asked Cole.

Snowden's revelations have forced the Obama administration to reconcile privacy rights with national security concerns about programs classified by multiple American administrations.

"These are tough balances. You're not going to do it overnight," Cole testified. "So we have to find that balance and I wish it was easier, but it's not."

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Karey Van Hall, G Crosse)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see
Comments (5)
Art16 wrote:
The NSA has evolved into a mutant octopus with clearly no oversight on its activities. It is time to pull it in for an overhaul lest it change its colors and become camouflaged again. The Snowden affair demonstrates they cannot effectively manage the security classification of their workforce, much less the integrity of their information, when defectively classified people are set loose and at large in their organization. Congress needs to act because this administration appears impotent to do so.

Feb 04, 2014 9:06pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Laster wrote:
Forget the video of the interview – Many theories on why it can’t be viewed.


You started this debate, Edward Snowden is in the meantime a household name for the whistleblower in the age of the internet. You were working until last summer for the NSA and during this time you secretly collected thousands of confidential documents. What was the decisive moment or was there a long period of time or something happening, why did you do this?

I would say sort of the breaking point is seeing the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress. There’s no saving an intelligence community that believes it can lie to the public and the legislators who need to be able to trust it and regulate its actions. Seeing that really meant for me there was no going back. Beyond that, it was the creeping realisation that no one else was going to do this. The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public, but neither of these things we were allowed to discuss, we were allowed no, even the wider body of our elected representatives were prohibited from knowing or discussing these programmes and that’s a dangerous thing. The only review we had was from a secret court, the FISA Court, which is a sort of rubber stamp authority

When you are on the inside and you go into work everyday and you sit down at the desk and you realise the power you have – you can wire tap the President of the United States, you can wire tap a Federal Judge and if you do it carefully no one will ever know because the only way the NSA discovers abuses are from self reporting.

Feb 04, 2014 9:19pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Laster wrote:

Does the NSA spy on Siemens, on Mercedes, on other successful German companies for example, to prevail, to have the advantage of knowing what is going on in a scientific and economic world.

I don’t want to pre-empt the editorial decisions of journalists but what I will say is there’s no question that the US is engaged in economic spying.

If there’s information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security of the United States, they’ll go after that information and they’ll take it.

Feb 04, 2014 9:32pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

Full focus