WASHINGTON – Lawmakers overseeing U.S. spy agencies proposed stricter limits on the government’s electronic surveillance Thursday while also calling for bolstering its authority to track terrorism suspects coming to America.
Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended the National Security Agency’s collection of phone and email records as legal but said she and other members of the panel favor reforms to bolster oversight and restrict some data collection.
“Among other things, we are considering provisions to do the following: place limits on NSA’s phone metadata program to change but preserve this program,” Feinstein said at a committee hearing with intelligence chiefs.
While calling for tougher rules, the senator also said she backs measures to enhance the government’s spying authority to monitor terrorism suspects entering the United States. The move is needed because current rules require the NSA to halt surveillance once the suspect sets foot on American soil, she said.
“These are known as roaming incidents. Of course, this collection is stopped just as the individual may be — may be — of the greatest concern,” she said.
In the wake of revelations by intelligence leaker Edward Snowden about the government’s electronic dragnet, Feinstein lamented media reports that she said have often “inaccurately” portrayed the NSA’s work and have unfairly sowed public distrust of the spy agencies.
However, a tense exchange at the hearing underscored lingering questions and concerns among some lawmakers about the scope of NSA surveillance.
The head of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, sidestepped questions from Sen. Mark Wyden about whether the government has ever used or planned to use mobile phone data to track the location of Americans.
Alexander said the NSA can only collect “cell phone site” data with a specific court order but did not give a clear yes-or-no answer to the question.
“General, if you’re responding to my question by not answering it because you think that’s a classified matter, that is certainly your right,” said Wyden, who has been an outspoken critic of NSA secrecy and its electronic surveillance. “I believe this is something the American people have a right to know: whether the NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell site information.”
Questions by Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall suggested that the agency has at least sought if not won permission to expand its domestic collection activities beyond what has been publicly acknowledged.
“Is it the goal of the NSA to collect the phone records of all Americans?” Udall asked.
“Yes, I believe it is in the nation’s best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox that we could search when the nation needs to do it. Yes,” Alexander replied.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA’s eavesdropping, has ruled that the agency would need to ask for court approval to collect geographic location information from mobile phone signals. Data on a mobile phone’s connection to phone towers can be used to pinpoint a caller.
Alexander, along with U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, said they are open to some reforms, including placing limits on how long phone records may be retained and adding a “constitutional advocate” to the court overseeing the NSA.
“We are open to a number of ideas that have been proposed in various quarters to address concerns about the business records program,” according to their joint statement to the intelligence committee.