At a Senate hearing on Wednesday about the National Security Agency’s ongoing domestic surveillance programs, the deputy director of the agency indicated his support for a proposal to keep metadata in the hands of telecommunications companies instead of the government.
Deputy NSA Director John Inglis appeared alongside several top NSA and Justice Department officials before the Senate Judiciary Committee to attempt to explain the reasoning behind the massive collection of American’s metadata that was revealed in June. Acting under a provision of the PATRIOT Act related to business’ records, the intelligence agency has been periodically requesting the Foreign Surveillance Act Court to compel phone companies to turnover millions of phone records for deposit into NSA databases for later querying. According to details the NSA provided after the programs were exposed, the agency does not “intentionally target” U.S. citizens or any person known to be in the United States.
On the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, frequent NSA critic Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) suggested that the better solution may be to leave that data in the hands of the private sector. “Conduct the program instead through direct queries to phone companies where there is a direct connection to terrorism and espionage,” Udall said. “I have seen no evidence that the bulk phone-records collection alone played a meaningful role, or any role, in disrupting terrorist plots,” Udall went on to say.
At today’s hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked Inglis about the utility of the current system, noting that the necessity of holding millions of records on the off-chance one of them could be related to terrorism seems excessive. Inglis defended the collection — citing one of the few cases of thwarted terrorism the government has specifically attributed to the phone metadata program — and claimed that “to find the needle, you need the haystack.” Durbin countered with Udall’s proposal, asking Inglis whether such a proposal could work:
DURBIN: … If we required the phone companies to retain the records for five years. INGLIS: That is a very fair point and that is possible. DURBIN: It would not be in the grasp of the government but accessed by the government. INGLIS: I agree sir. DURBIN: Which serves the same purpose would it not? INGLIS: I agree but under the current legal framing the phone companies are not required to retain that for the benefit of the government. DURBIN: How hard would that be. INGLIS: I think it would require a legal change but I don’t think that’s hard.
“I don’t think that you can get there from here,” Ingles went on to say, indicating that he had some concerns about the proposal. “You then have to think about the rest of the attributes that are necessary to make that a useful venture.” The NSA is keeping mum on what those attributes would be, though, and whether or not the Obama adminstration will be working with Congress on enabling legislation anytime soon. “We’re not going to elaborate at this time on the Deputy Director’s comments,” NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines told ThinkProgress.
Earlier today, the NSA released several declassified documents related to the program in the hopes of stymieing some of the criticism of the lack of transparency seen from the Obama administration on spying. NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander will be on the Hill tomorrow for a closed door session with legislators, who will likely have even more questions for him with Wednesday’s revelation of yet another tool the NSA uses to sift through the vast amount of data it collects.