Democrat: Obama’s Spying Compromise Threatens Millions

Jay Rockefeller doesn’t trust the private sector to store phone data.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 03: Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) answers reporters questions during a news conference about funding for the Federal Aviation Administration at the U.S. Capitol August 3, 2011 in Washington, DC. Congressional Democrats blamed Republicans in the House of Representatives for refusing to pass a 'clean' bill to fund the FAA, leaving 4,000 agency employees out of work and relying on airport safety inspectors to continue working without pay. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Sasso
Jan. 29, 2014, 7:34 a.m.

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.

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