Forcing the National Security Agency to give up control over its massive database of phone records would harm national security and endanger the privacy of millions of Americans, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller said Wednesday.
"While the president has made it clear that he understands our intelligence need for this data, I do not believe we can come up with a better alternative," Rockefeller said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
"Here's why: Practically, we do not have the technical capacity to do so. And, certainly, it is impossible to do so without the possibility of massive mistakes or catastrophic privacy violations."
One of the most controversial revelations from the leaks by Edward Snowden is that the NSA collects records—such as phone numbers, call times, and call durations—on virtually all U.S. calls. In an attempt to ease the growing outrage over NSA surveillance, President Obama announced earlier this month that he asked Attorney General Eric Holder and top Intelligence officials to come up with a plan to give up control of the phone database.
It's unclear how exactly the administration plans to continue mining the phone records while no longer controlling the database. One possibility is that a new private entity will hold the records and then give the NSA access to it. Another proposal would be to require the phone companies to maintain the records on behalf of the government.
But Rockefeller said it is an "impossibility" to create a new entity that could coordinate and handle billions of sensitive phone records safely. He also noted that the phone companies have no interest in becoming "agents" of the government.
"The telecom providers themselves do not want to do this, and for good reason," he said. "Telecom companies do not take an oath—they are neither counterterrorism agencies nor privacy-protection organizations. They are businesses, and they are focused on rewarding their shareholders, not protecting privacy or national security."
Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the telecommunications industry, said he has dealt with the phone companies enough to know not to trust them.
"I have served on the Commerce Committee for 30 years and know that telephone companies sometimes make empty promises about consumer protection and transparency," he said. "Corporations core profit motives can, and sometimes have, trumped their holding to their own public commitments."
The senator worried that keeping the sensitive records in the private sector could leave them vulnerable to hackers. He argued that the recent data breach at Target shows that only the government can be trusted with protecting such a massive trove of private data.
Rockefeller also argued that the NSA is subject to "stringent" audits and oversight to ensure that analysts don't abuse their power to access private information without proper authorization. The private sector has no such protections, he said.
"I can't tell you how strongly I feel about this," Rockefeller emphasized.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted Rockefeller's extensive experience dealing with telecommunications issues on the Commerce Committee.
"In my view, he knows what he's talking about," she said.