We must keep NSA’s call-records program

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The National Security Agency program that collects phone numbers and related data, based on section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, is often called a “surveillance program” or a program to “listen to phone calls.”

It is neither.

Rather, this program collects only phone numbers and the duration and times that calls are made.

When the NSA learns of a number used by a terrorist connected to al Qaida, it can search its database of phone records.

Only 22 highly vetted NSA analysts can approve a query of this database — and only when they have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the number is connected to terrorism.

If the NSA analyst believes that circumstances justify the need to know the actual content of the call to probe further into what may be an active terrorist plot, the agency sends the numbers to the FBI, which requests a warrant from the court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Ultimately, this court determines if “probable cause” is sufficient to grant the warrant to collect the content of the call.

The NSA recently disclosed that 54 terrorist “events” have been interrupted in part because of information gleaned from this program and another recently declassified NSA program, called PRISM, based on Section 702 of FISA.

The NSA call-records program is reviewed and authorized every 90 days by the FISA court.

Edward Snowden leaked the court order reauthorizing the program but did not provide the corollary order containing the program’s many strictures.

Balancing privacy rights with our nation’s security is difficult to achieve, but I know of no federal program for which audits, congressional oversight and scrutiny by the Justice Department, the intelligence community and the courts are stronger or more sustained.

I read enough intelligence on terrorists to know that if they can, they will attack us. New bombs and techniques are in the making.

The Transportation Security Administration remains on alert. So should every citizen.

I intend to work with members of the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees to consider changes to the NSA call-records program in an effort to increase transparency and improve privacy protections. These changes would require that:

• The number of Americans’ phone numbers submitted as queries of the NSA database be made public annually, as well as the number of referrals made to the FBI each year based on those queries;

• The number of warrants obtained by the FBI to collect the content of calls be released annually;

• The number of times in a year that any company is required to provide data pursuant to FISA’s business records provision be released;

• All classified FISA court opinions and reports on U.S. persons targeted for surveillance under FISA be made available in a secure location to every member of Congress;

• The five-year retention period of phone records be reduced to two or three years;

• The ideological diversity of the FISA court be increased (86 percent of judges appointed to the court by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. have been Republicans and the vast majority were prosecutors, according to media reports); and

• The FISA court review each query of the database as soon as practicable to determine its propriety under the law.

In addition, the congressional intelligence committees should periodically review all intelligence data-collection programs involving Americans to ensure that the Justice Department guidelines are adequate and are followed.

The bottom line is, actionable intelligence is the best way to prevent an attack against our country.

In conjunction with programs such as PRISM, the NSA call records program has contributed to the disruption of terrorist plots and done so within a legal framework that provides strong privacy protections, court review and congressional oversight.

It is vital and necessary in protecting our country from future attack. It must be sustained.

Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, is chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. www.feinstein.senate.gov

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