WASHINGTON — President Obama's proposal to balance national security and privacy concerns by stopping the government from storing records of millions of phone calls from the U.S. — on condition the data remain accessible from the telecommunications companies — won diverse backing on Sunday.
Two former top-level intelligence agency officials, along with the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said they favored or were open to shifting the storage of the records from the National Security Agency to the companies. The agency began collecting and storing billing records of calls after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Under Obama's proposal, the NSA could obtain the records upon request from the phone companies. It remains to be seen whether the NSA would be required to seek advance permission for the records from a federal panel, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Obama is proposing the NSA be required to do so. But legislation sponsored by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Intelligence Committee would allow the NSA to access the records first and then go to the court to seek permission.
Feinstein, who has steadfastly defended the NSA's practices as necessary to investigate and prevent terrorist acts, indicated her view on any changes would depend on the details of the legislation. Though she did not address the merits of the House legislation Sunday, the senator said she looked forward to receiving proposed legislative language from the White House.
Feinstein endorsed as a "good idea" what she said was Obama's preference for the phone-record data to be held by the companies for 18 months. The NSA now holds it for five years. However, she expressed concern over how the records would be handled by employees at the companies who might be asked to search the data in response to a government request.
Under the protocol now in place, the phone records are examined by "22 vetted people at the National Security Agency who are supervised and watched with everything they do," Feinstein said on CNN's "State of Union."
Michael Hayden, who at various times over 10 years held the position of director of the NSA, the CIA and National Intelligence for Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, said the suggested policy shift as outlined by Obama would buttress national security.
Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," Hayden said that, due to privacy concerns, the NSA is collecting and receiving only about one-third of the phone records it initially was accessing. Under the change proposed by Obama, Hayden said the NSA would be able to "query the data in an exhaustive way, not that one-third."
The legislation in the House would go further, he said, enabling the NSA "to query not just telephone metadata, but digital or email metadata, too."
Hayden added, "I think we've arrived at a solution that actually makes us more safe, that gives people higher comfort that the government would not potentially abuse it."
Appearing on CBS alongside Hayden, Michael Morell, who was Obama's deputy and acting director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013, noted that he had served on a review panel that recommended the exact change of policy that Obama is now seeking. Morell said he was "comfortable" with the provision in the House legislation that would let the NSA access the phone records before seeking the court's permission.
"I think we're headed in the right direction here, and I think there will be some sort of compromise between the president's proposal [and] the House Intelligence Committee's proposal," Morell said. "They're very, very close to each other."
Feinstein offered a more guarded forecast: "Can a bill be passed? It's very controversial."