President Obama met Thursday with senior lawmakers on opposing sides of a debate about whether to end the National Security Agency’s collection of Americans’ phone data.
The 90-minute meeting came in the wake of a report by a presidentially appointed review group that concluded that the program, which gathers billions of phone call toll logs, “was not essential” to preventing terrorist attacks. The group recommended that the data be held instead by the phone companies or a private third party.
Obama has not made a decision about the program’s future but noted last month that the public’s concerns about potential abuse and privacy intrusions must be considered. He will make a speech sometime before his next State of the Union address, set for Jan. 28.
“It was clear to me that the president and his administration are wrestling with the issues now,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who attended the meeting and favors ending the bulk collection because, he said, it is too far-reaching and has not proved effective.
The debate has been forced by the disclosure of the program in June, when Britain’s Guardian newspaper published details leaked to it by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The program collects “metadata,” or numbers dialed and call times, but not the content of conversations.
“The president made it clear today that he understands the value of the metadata collection programs,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the intelligence panel and the co-sponsor of a bill that would codify the program in law. “He also made clear that some changes should be made to create trust in the program by making them more transparent to the American people. He was in a listening mode today, and we had a very good discussion about the way forward on the NSA programs.”
Obama stressed that the changes he announces this month will be the start of a process, said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who favors ending the program. “Some reforms may require technological work,” he said. “Others will require legislative work. It’s my hope that he’ll do as much as he can through the executive process because the legislative process will be difficult, perilous and long.”
Wyden said he does not think the private third-party option will prevail. “I think the choice is going to be between the phone companies and the government,” he said.
Schiff said he “strongly urged” against the third-party idea. “That private entity would be viewed as a surrogate of the NSA, so I don’t think you gain anything from the privacy perspective,” he said.
At a separate meeting Thursday, White House general counsel Kathryn Ruemmler made clear to a group of privacy advocates that the administration considered the program useful. “She characterized the review panel as recognizing the value of the program, and we disagreed with that,” a participant said.
The meetings came on the same day that leaders of the House Intelligence Committee announced that a classified Pentagon report concluded that Snowden downloaded 1.7 million intelligence files from U.S. agencies in the single largest theft of secrets in the nation’s history. The report, they said, asserts that the breach has the potential to harm U.S. troops.
“This report confirms my greatest fears — Snowden’s real acts of betrayal place America’s military men and women at greater risk. Snowden’s actions are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field,” the committee chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), said in a statement.
The breach has tipped off adversaries to U.S. intelligence sources and methods and could “gravely impact” national security, the report concluded, said Rogers and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat.
Snowden downloaded the material while working at an NSA facility in Hawaii last year. If he obtained 1.7 million records, he is not thought to have released more than a small percentage to any journalist. The NSA is a Defense Department agency.
Snowden’s supporters have dismissed claims that his actions have endangered national security and instead have accused U.S. officials of exaggerating the impact.
“This is straight from the government’s playbook,” said Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union and an adviser to Snowden. “Remember, the government told the Supreme Court that publication of the Pentagon Papers would cause grave damage to national security. That was not true then, and this report is not true now. Overblown claims of national security rarely stand the test of time.”
Although most of the stories prompted by Snowden’s disclosures have focused on NSA’s foreign intelligence activities and domestic surveillance, “most of the documents Snowden stole concern vital operations of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force,” Rogers said.
The Washington Post reported in October that Snowden breached military intelligence files. According to officials, he took tens of thousands of documents from the intelligence arms of each of the services, as well as from the Defense Intelligence Agency. He downloaded 30,000 from one service alone and similar amounts from each of the others, one official said.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.