US intelligence officials: NSA reform bill is 'flawed'

A recent bill to stop the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records would hurt its ability to catch terrorists, officials say

Proposals in Congress to end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. telephone records would compromise the agency's ability to find and track terrorists, representatives of the intelligence community said Monday.

The USA Freedom Act, introduced last Tuesday by more than 85 U.S. lawmakers, would reduce NSA surveillance capabilities to the levels before the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks on the U.S., said Brad Wiegmann, deputy assistant attorney general of the National Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Wiegmann and other U.S. intelligence officials faced questions about alternatives to the controversial NSA phone records collection program during a hearing of the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). The USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, would "essentially shut down" the phone records program, said Robert Litt, general counsel of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The USA Freedom Act would require the NSA to show the records it seeks to collect are related to a foreign power, a suspected agent of a foreign power or a person in contact with a suspected agent. Among other changes, the bill would also require the NSA to get court orders to search U.S. residents' communications obtained without individualized warrants.

The bill is "flawed" because it presumes intelligence officials often have specific targets when looking for terrorist activity, said Patrick Kelley, acting general counsel of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "That's the essence of terrorism prevention -- we don't know who we're after," he said."If we're limited to seeing numbers from a known [suspect], then we're not very effective."

The model of targeting specific suspects when trying to prevent terrorism doesn't work well, Kelley added. "We're connecting the dots here, so the fewer dots we that have, the fewer connections we'll make," he said. "You are reducing the amount of data available and therefore making it much more difficult to make the connections that we need to make."

PCLOB member Rachel Brand asked Litt if he would support a special advocate to argue for privacy issues at the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a proposal in the USA Freedom Act and advocated by several privacy advocates.

Litt said he has concerns about the special advocate assigned to the FISC. He questioned how such an advocate would have legal standing before the court. The addition of a special advocate at the FISC would also mean some terrorism suspects have more legal representation than U.S. residents have when law enforcement agencies are seeking court-ordered warrants, he said.

"Are you going to set up a process that provides more protection for a terrorist than for Americans who are subject of criminal search warrants?" he said.

PCLOB members questioned the limits of the NSA's authority to collect telephone and other records. "One question is, what's next? What could be next?" said board member James Dempsey. "What if the government decided it wanted to go back and start using [the Patriot Act to collect] Internet metadata?"

Dempsey asked if the NSA could use the same rationale it has used to collect telephone records to collect U.S. residents' Internet records.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the NSA to collect tangible business records, Litt said. "It's not clear to me that the same legal authority could be used with respect to Internet service providers," he said.

The NSA had to provide evidence to the FISC that the bulk collection of telephone records was relevant to its antiterrorism efforts, Litt added. "We'd have to make that same showing to the court for another category of data," he said.

The FISC also put significant limitations on the NSA's use of the telephone data, he added. Any other bulk records collection program would face the same scrutiny, he said.

Intelligence officials told the board that NSA employees can only query the bulk telephone records for cases of counterterrorism, and those queries can only be more widely disseminated in a terrorism case.

Board member Patricia Wald asked if the NSA's search capabilities were mainly limited "to the technological capability of your search instruments," and not legal controls. "Can that be further expanded if new technological tools would allow you greater search capacity in this or other bulk programs?" she said. "Could the haystack be made as big as the technology tools you have [allow]?"

The FISC has considered the NSA's technological capabilities, but the court has not given the agency automatic authority to move forward as technology advances, said the DOJ's Wiegmann. "You have to look at all of the other factors the court considered," he said. "How important is the information? How necessary is it to get the information?"

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags U.S. Federal Bureau of InvestigationtelecommunicationJim SensenbrennerRobert LittU.S. National Security AgencyU.S. CongressU.S. Office of the Director of National IntelligenceinternetprivacyJames DempseyPatrick KelleysecurityRachel BrandgovernmentPatrick LeahyPatricia WaldBrad WiegmannU.S. Department of Justice

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?