Congress will curtail or even shut down the National Security Agency’s domestic snooping program over concerns that it violates Americans’ privacy, the top U.S. intelligence official predicted Thursday.
“It’s very clear that — to the extent we get to keep these tools at all — they’re going to be legislatively amended,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said, referring to the NSA’s warrantless domestic data-gathering exposed by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.
His remarks underline growing unease, in Congress and the country at large, about the broad powers federal agencies have laid claim to under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendment Act.
But Mr. Clapper, a career intelligence official who is the titular head of all 16 U.S. spy agencies, said that concerns about the agency’s domestic activities are unfounded.
“I can guarantee you that the privacy of Americans is not being compromised,” he told a meeting of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an organization of government contractors who work with intelligence agencies.
He blamed the concerns among policymakers on an “understanding gap” with Congress and a news media that reported leaked documents by immediately imputing the worst motives to U.S. agencies. “They go straight to the deepest, darkest place they can,” he said.
The top secret documents Mr. Snowden stole and leaked to the media revealed that the NSA has used broad legislative powers to collect a vast five-year archive of so-called “telephony metadata” — the origin, destination, time and duration of every phone call made in the United States.
The House narrowly defeated legislation this year that would have defunded the program, and the House Committee on the Judiciary is reviewing how the law is used, according to an aide who asked for customary anonymity to discuss future plans.
The committee already held a public hearing and plans a classified one next week, “so that we can thoroughly review the data collection programs used by the NSA and ensure that the laws we have enacted are executed in a manner that protects Americans’ civil liberties,” the aide said.
One of the authors of the Patriot Act isn’t waiting, and already is working on legislation to amend Section 215 of the law — the so-called “business records” provision that the NSA has used to secretly compel telecommunications companies to turn over their records in bulk to the agency.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. , Wisconsin Republican who was Judiciary Committee chairman in 2001, has said Congress never intended the law to be used for the mass collection of data about Americans’ phone calls and emails.
In July, he said he was working on a bill to rein in the dragnet collection of data, increase the transparency of the special secret court that oversees FISA, and legally protect businesses that provide government agencies with information.
Meanwhile, Mr. Clapper, in contrast with others in U.S. intelligence who have called Mr. Snowden a traitor, said the 30-year-old leaker at least had started a needed debate about the balance between privacy and security.
“As loath as I am to give any credit for what’s happened here, which was egregious, I think it’s clear that some of the conversations that this has generated, some of the debate, actually probably needed to happen,” he said, “It’s unfortunate they didn’t happen some time ago, but if there’s a good side to this, that’s it.”
He said that U.S. intelligence agencies needs to be more open about its work.
“We have to err on the side of transparency if we are to continue enjoying the trust of the American people and their elected representatives,” he said. But “transparency is a double-edged sword. It’s good for us, good for the people, but our enemies also go to school on it.”
While not commenting directly on reports that Mr. Snowden may have stolen more than 60,000 classified documents form NSA computer networks, Mr. Clapper did warn that there are many more revelations to come and said they might damage the reputation of not just the NSA, but the whole intelligence community.
• Shaun Waterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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