Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the most stalwart defenders of the intelligence community, said Friday she is now "open to changes" to how the government collects and stores the phone records of millions of Americans.
The shift from the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee arrives a week ahead of a March 28 deadline that President Obama gave his administration to deliver alternatives to him on how the National Security Agency operates one of its most controversial programs, the bulk collection of phone "metadata."
"If there are alternatives that preserve the operational effectiveness of the call records program and can address privacy concerns, I am certainly open to changes," Feinstein said in a statement.
The intelligence community and the Justice Department have a deadline of next Friday to deliver their recommendations to Obama on how to implement NSA surveillance reforms that the president outlined during a policy speech in January.
Feinstein said she was looking forward to hearing those recommendations. But the California Democrat also made it clear that she continues to support the collection of such records as authorized under the controversial provision of the post-9/11 Patriot Act known as Section 215, which both the Bush and Obama administrations have used to justify carte blanche collection of domestic phone records.
Such surveillance "plays an important role in detecting and preventing terrorist attacks against the United States," Feinstein said.
Still, Feinstein's declaration that she is "open to changes," although nuanced, marks a change from one of the NSA's most steadfast allies in Congress, who last year introduced a bill that would largely codify the agency's existing surveillance authorities. Feinstein is now signaling that she is open to the president's recommendation to either shift the storage of metadata records from the government to private phone companies, from which the government could request such records on an as-needed basis, or to task some hypothetical third party with the responsibility of storing these records.
Feinstein made enormous waves last week when she took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of possibly violating the Constitution. She lacerated the agency for accessing in January computer files used by staffers of her Senate committee to review the agency's now-defunct foreign interrogation practices, which included waterboarding.
The NSA's database of phone metadata includes phone numbers, call times, and call durations but not the content of conversations. The program came under intense scrutiny from privacy and civil-liberty groups after it was first disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last June.