A telephone records surveillance program run by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency raises serious privacy concerns and should be reined in, some U.S. senators said Wednesday.
Some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee pushed for changes to the surveillance program that allows the two agencies to broadly collect telephone call records from U.S. carriers, with some lawmakers calling for the records to remain with carriers until the agencies have a suspicion of a telephone number's ties to terrorist activity.
"I remain concerned that, as a country, we've yet to strike the right balance between intelligence gathering into the FBI and the civil liberties and privacy rights of Americans," said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, during a hearing on oversight of the FBI. "The American people deserve to know how broad investigative laws ... are being interpreted and used to conduct electronic surveillance."
FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the recently exposed phone records collection program, saying it was a critical piece of antiterrorism investigations. The phone records collection program authorized by the Patriot Act has been a key tool in disrupting 10 to 12 terrorist plots since Sept. 11, 2001, he told lawmakers. NSA officials said Tuesday that the two surveillance programs have helped disrupt more than 50 terrorist plots since then.
Also asked if the FBI uses drone aircraft to track suspects in the U.S. Mueller said the agency has, but it's been "very seldom."
But Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he will introduce a bill this week that would limit what records the FBI and NSA can collect.
Earlier this month, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about two surveillance programs, including the one used by the FBI and NSA to collect all phone records from Verizon Communications. The second program allows the NSA to collect information about emails and other Internet communications.
The phone records program is legal and is overseen by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Mueller said. In many of the 50 cases, the phone records have been "one dot among many dots" of information used by investigators, but in other cases, the phone records have been "instrumental," Mueller said.
Under the Patriot Act, the FBI and NSA have collected "billions of phone numbers," Leahy said. He asked if the agencies could still conduct the terrorism investigations with "good police work" to connect the dots if they didn't collect the phone records.
"You never know which dot is going to be key," Mueller said. "What you want is as many dots as you can [collect]. If you close down a program like this, you are removing dots from the playing field."
Officials with the FBI and NSA faced a largely friendly audience before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Tuesday, but several senators at Wednesday's hearing raised concerns about the two agencies collecting U.S. phone records.
Other senators praised Mueller and the surveillance program, saying it has helped keep the U.S. safe.
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, asked whether it would be more appropriate for telephone carriers to keep their records, with the FBI requesting access when the agency sees evidence of a crime or terrorist plot.
Such a system would be unworkable now, Mueller said. Many carriers don't keep their business records for more than 18 months, and some cases, the FBI would have to request business records from several carriers after it sees evidence of terrorist activity, he said.
"It would take an awful long time," he said. "When you're trying to prevent terrorist attacks, what you want is that information ... almost instantaneously so you can prevent that attack. You cannot wait three months, six months, a year to get that information."
Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said he believes the collection of phone records is legal and there are "reasonable safeguards" in place, but he called for more transparency about the process. U.S. residents need to "understand the protections that are in place," he said. "The American people have the right to know what's going on, to the extend that it's consistent with national security."
But public transparency comes with a cost, Mueller said. "You are going to be giving signals to our adversaries as to what our capabilities are," he said. "There is a price to be paid for that transparency."
It's up to Congress to decide where the line between transparency and security is drawn, he said.
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 e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.