WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee objected on Sunday to President Barack Obama’s proposal for the government to give up control of the storage of the telephone records of millions of Americans it holds as part of its counterterrorism efforts.
Obama on Friday announced an overhaul of U.S. surveillance activities following criticism sparked by the disclosure of leaked documents exposing the wide reach of National Security Agency spy efforts.
He proposed an overhaul of the government’s handling of bulk telephone “metadata” - lists of million of phone calls made by Americans that show which numbers were called and when.
Obama said the government will not hold the bulk telephone records. A presidential advisory panel had recommended that the data be controlled by a third party such as telephone companies, but Obama did not propose who should store the phone information in the future.
Signaling congressional opposition to the change, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the intelligence panel, criticized the idea of moving the data out of government control.
“I think that’s a very difficult thing because the whole purpose of this program is to provide instantaneous information to be able to disrupt any plot that may be taking place,” Feinstein told the NBC program “Meet the Press.”
“I think a lot of the privacy people (advocates) perhaps don’t understand that we still occupy the role of the ‘Great Satan,’ new bombs are being devised, new terrorists are emerging, new groups - actually, a new level of viciousness. And I think we need to be prepared,” she added.
Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence community to report back to him by March 28 on how to preserve the necessary capabilities of the program without the government holding the metadata.
The usefulness of keeping the metadata records was questioned by a presidential review panel, which found that while the program had produced some leads for counterterrorism investigators, such data had not been decisive in a single case.
Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, faulted Obama for creating uncertainty surrounding the program.
“Just in my conversations over the weekend with intelligence officials, this new level of uncertainty is already having a bit of an impact on our ability to protect Americans by finding terrorists who are trying to reach into the United States,” Rogers told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Democratic Senator Mark Udall, a member of the intelligence panel, urged an end to the collection of metadata.
“We can be effective in protecting our country but we don’t need to collect every single phone record of every single American on every single day,” he told the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
Feinstein expressed doubt that a proposal to end the collection of such data could pass in Congress, adding: “The president has very clearly said that he wants to keep the capability.”
Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Jim Loney and Meredith Mazzilli