Two top officials in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, including the director of national intelligence, have voiced support for a Senate bill that would end the U.S. National Security Agency's bulk collection of domestic telephone records.
The Senate version of the USA Freedom Act, which would allow the NSA to collect U.S. phone records only after targeting specific selection terms, "should provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in a letter this week to the bill's sponsor.
The bill "preserves essential intelligence community capabilities," the two officials wrote to Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. The bill is "a reasonable compromise that enhances privacy and civil liberties and increases transparency," they added.
The support from Clapper and Holder is a turnaround from late last year, when officials with the DOJ and ODNI said the USA Freedom Act would hinder U.S. terrorist tracking efforts. The Senate is likely to act on the USA Freedom Act after it returns from summer recess next week.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amended version of the bill that critics said would not end bulk collection of U.S. phone records. The House version of the bill included an expanded definition of "specific selection terms" that the NSA could use to target phone records, and privacy groups criticized the bill for allowing the agency wide latitude to continue to target large numbers of phone records.
Leahy and several other senators have pushed to close that loophole in the Senate version of the bill.
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group, applauded the Obama administration's support for the Senate version of the bill.
The support "strongly confirms that we can advance privacy protections without sacrificing our safety," CDT President and CEO Nuala O'Connor said in a statement. "After a year of debate, the consensus is clear -- bulk collection is invasive and unnecessary, and its prohibition will not hamper essential intelligence needs."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is [email protected]