Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Leaders of the congressional intelligence committees are pushing back against a key part of President Barack Obama's attempt to overhaul U.S. surveillance, saying it is unworkable for the government to let someone else control how Americans' phone records are stored.
Obama, under pressure over the controversy over government spying, said last week he wants bulk phone data stored outside the government to reduce the risk that the records will be abused.
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that Obama had intensified a sense of uncertainty about the country's ability to root out terrorist threats. Obama didn't say who should have control of Americans' data; he directed the attorney general and director of national intelligence to find a solution within 60 days.
"We really did need a decision on Friday, and what we got was lots of uncertainty," Rogers, R-Mich., said. "And just in my conversations over the weekend with intelligence officials, this new level of uncertainty is already having a bit of an impact on our ability to protect Americans by finding terrorists who are trying to reach into the United States."
The president also said he will require a special judge's advance approval before intelligence agencies can examine someone's data and will force analysts to keep their searches closer to suspected terrorists or organizations.
"And I think that's a very difficult thing," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Because the whole purpose of this program is to provide instantaneous information to be able to disrupt any plot that may be taking place."
Under the surveillance program, the NSA gathers phone numbers called and the length of conversations, but not the content of calls. Obama said the NSA sometimes needs to tap those records to find people linked to suspected terrorists. But he said eventually the bulk data should be stored somewhere out of the government's hands. That could mean finding a way for phone companies to store the records, though some companies have balked at the idea, or it could mean creating a third-party entity to hold the records.
Feinstein, D-Calif., said many Americans don't understand that threats persist a dozen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"New bombs are being devised. New terrorists are emerging, new groups. Actually, a new level of viciousness. And I think we need to be prepared," Feinstein said.
The lawmakers did praise the president for his defense of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs.
"First, I thought it was very important that the president laid out no abuses, this was not an illegal program, it wasn't a rogue agency," Rogers said.
The surveillance programs have been under fire since former NSA analyst Edward Snowden absconded with an estimated 1.7 million documents related to surveillance and other NSA operations, giving the documents to journalists around the world. Revelations in the documents sparked a furor over whether Americans have been giving up privacy protections in exchange for intelligence-gathering on terrorism.
Congress will have a lot of say in how and whether Obama's ideas are carried out.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has proposed to end the NSA's bulk data collection program, putting him at odds with Feinstein. Leahy said senators would have many questions for Attorney General Eric Holder when he comes before the Judiciary Committee next week.
Yet Leahy suggested Sunday he might not challenge the president on allowing the NSA's surveillance programs to continue.
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