WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee blasted the government’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records on Tuesday and said it’s a misuse of authority granted by Congress under the Patriot Act.
“Congress never intended to allow bulk collections,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., author of the 2001 Patriot Act.
Debate is intensifying in Congress over whether to scrap the massive data collection effort or to modify it. There’s widespread skepticism among both parties over President Barack Obama’s plans for the program’s future and a desire for Congress to curb the National Security Agency.
“In my district, and many others, NSA has become not a three-letter word but a four-letter word,” Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., said at a Tuesday hearing on the surveillance effort.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said Congress needs to end the bulk collection.
“Consensus is growing that it is largely ineffective, inconsistent with our national values, and inconsistent with the statute as this committee wrote it,” said Conyers, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
An independent federal privacy board reviewed the spy program and said there was no evidence it had made a real difference in thwarting any terrorist operations.
David Medine, who chairs the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the program should come to an end.
“We conclude the benefits of the program are modest at best and they are outweighed by the privacy and civil liberties consequences,” Medine said.
A senior Justice Department official defended the surveillance program, saying it’s needed for security, and said the Obama administration is seeking to alter how the program works.
“These are things that if you don’t collect them and something blows up, people are going to be very angry,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the lawmakers.
Cole said the bulk collection of phone records is a useful tool that helps connect dots between suspected terrorists and people who may be assisting their operations.
Obama wants to keep the spy program, although he’s proposed several changes in the wake of the public furor that followed news of its existence. Leaks from former defense contractor Edward Snowden revealed the previously undisclosed scope of the surveillance effort, in which the National Security Agency collects millions of Americans’ phone records.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said the program needs to be changed. But the Virginia Republican said he’s skeptical of Obama’s approach.
Obama wants someone other than the federal government to store the massive database of phone records, which includes numbers dialed and the duration of calls but not the content of the calls. The president didn’t say who should keep the data and the Justice Department is weighing options, including the telephone companies themselves.
Goodlatte said that could raise its own privacy problems.
“We need look no further than last month’s Target breach or last week’s Yahoo breach to know that private information held by private companies is susceptible to cyberattacks,” he said.
A presidentially appointed review panel has urged the database be removed from the government’s hands, suggesting that could ease public concerns about abuse.
Cole said the Justice Department is working hard to figure out exactly who should store the phone records, whether it should be the telephone companies or some other third party.
“We’re also trying to think outside the box and see if there are other options that we can come up with,” he said.
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