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.
What We're Following See More »
In a unanimous decision, "the Supreme Court on Tuesday said it violates insider-trading laws for a corporate officer to make a “gift” of insider information to a relative, a decision that makes it easier for those who police Wall Street to bring prosecutions."
House Speaker Paul Ryan has decreed that House members "won’t receive their committee assignments until January — after they cast a public vote on the House floor for speaker. "The move has sparked behind-the-scenes grumbling from a handful of Ryan critics, who say the delay allows him and the Speaker-aligned Steering Committee to dole out committee assignments based on political loyalty rather than merit or expertise." The roll call to elect the speaker is set for Jan. 3, the first vote of the new Congress.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Monday that the government funding bill will be released on Tuesday. The bill is the last piece of legislation Congress needs to pass before leaving for the year and is expected to fund the government through the spring. The exact time date the bill would fund the government through is unclear, though it is expected to be in April or May.
As has been rumored for a week, Donald Trump will nominate Ben Carson, his former rival, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In a statement, Trump said, "We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities. Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a Presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up."