NSA’s Top Congressional Defender Now ‘Open to Changes’ to Phone Spying

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she is willing to compromise on the controversial surveillance program “if there are alternatives.”

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 26: Committee chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (C), ranking member Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) (R) and Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV) (L) listen during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee September 26,2 103 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing was focused on the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Legislation.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
March 21, 2014, 11:19 a.m.

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.

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