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House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat seeks to end NSA bulk phone-data collection

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), left, and ranking member Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) in 2012. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday that he favors ending the National Security Agency’s widespread collection of U.S. citizens’ phone data, making him the first of the four leaders of the congressional intelligence panels to do so.

In an interview, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) said he is crafting legislation to replace the NSA’s collection of phone data with a system in which phone companies would provide the agency with daily alerts on numbers suspected of terrorist activity.

The concept, which Ruppersberger said he is still refining, would require court review of numbers for which the phone companies are asked to provide data. But, significantly, it would not call for a requirement that companies hold data longer than they do now.

“We need to end the bulk collection by NSA, but also preserve the important capability that the NSA needs to keep our country safe,” said Ruppersberger, whose district includes the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters.

President Obama in January called for an end to the NSA’s gathering of Americans’ phone records, a program that has generated extensive controversy since it was revealed last June in a document leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The president gave the attorney general and the director of national intelligence until March 28 to develop options for an alternative approach that would allow the NSA to fulfill its mission.

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The program, in existence since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, collects data on phone calls, such as the numbers dialed, but not their content.

Ruppersberger said he hopes that his concept can form the basis for a compromise that Congress, the administration and privacy advocates can accept. He said he has been in “serious” negotiations with Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the Intelligence Committee chairman, to develop bipartisan legislation.

In a statement, Rogers said he is working with Ruppersberger and other House colleagues to craft a proposal that will address concerns about bulk data storage, protect civil liberties, “increase transparency and confidence in the government’s intelligence collection activities, and maintain a targeted capability for counterterrorism operations.”

Last month, The Washington Post reported that the NSA was considering a plan under which phone companies would conduct daily searches of their vast database of records against a watch list of suspicious numbers. That is in line with his concept, although details are still being worked out, Ruppersberger said.

His concept also envisions the NSA sending individual numbers to the phone companies, which would run them against their databases and return any results, he said. In either case, court review would be required.

It’s unclear how extensively the NSA would be allowed to survey the phone records. Obama has directed that the NSA stop at “two hops,” which means that analysts can review the numbers in contact with a suspect’s number, and then the numbers in contact with that first set of results.

One positive aspect of Ruppersberger’s concept, privacy advocates say, is the absence of a data retention requirement. The phone companies are strongly against such a mandate, and many lawmakers are opposed as well.

In any case, Ruppersberger said, federal rules require companies to keep phone data for billing purposes for 18 months. Most of the data that has proven useful in the past to the intelligence community was no more than 18 months old, he said.

Ruppersberger’s proposal is “definitely a step in the right direction,” said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has brought a legal challenge of the NSA program’s constitutionality. But he said there are other issues, such as the scale of information returned with a request that is based on “a very low standard.”

Then-NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis told National Public Radio in January that in 2012, agency analysts “looked at” a total of 6,000 phone numbers.

Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter for The Washington Post. She focuses on issues relating to intelligence, technology and civil liberties.

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