Recommendations by a presidential panel to overhaul a U.S. National Security Agency phone records collection program could impede efforts to track terrorism suspects, some senators suggested Tuesday.
Some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned the recommendations of the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, a panel appointed by President Barack Obama after last year's revelations of bulk data collection and surveillance by the NSA.
"Those of us who see it important to prevent another attack" see value in the phone records program, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told members of the review group. "Do you not see value -- substantial value -- in being able to prevent this attack?"
While critics have questioned the value of the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, courts have seen value in the program, Feinstein said. Other senators repeated their assertion, along with the panel's, that the phone records program has provided little essential information to terrorism investigators.
The review group sees value in programs that will prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S., said Michael Morell, a member of the panel and former deputy director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. That's one reason why the panel did not recommend that the phone records program be ended, but instead called for major changes, he said.
The recommended changes, including taking the collected phone records out of the hands of the NSA and requiring individual court orders for most searches of the records database, will not "add a substantial burden to the government," Morell said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, suggested that agencies fighting terrorism shouldn't have to jump through the same legal hoops as other law enforcement agencies. There's a fundamental difference "between fighting a crime and fighting a war," he said.
"We're trying to find a way to fight a war within our values," he said. "This is an unusual situation. There's no capital to conquer, there's no navy to sink, there's no air force to shoot down. We're fighting an ideology."
With many terrorists not afraid of dying, "we've got to hit them before they hit us," Graham added. "Do you agree with me that you don't need a court order to surveil the enemy in a time of war?"
Panel members said their recommendations wouldn't change the NSA's ability to conduct overseas surveillance. And while supporters of the NSA phone records program have defended it by saying it only collects metadata, the panel saw no hard line between the collection of metadata and the collection of call contents, Morell said.
"There is quite a lot of information in metadata," he said. "You can learn an awful lot about the person."
While some committee members questioned the panel's recommendations, other senators defended them.
U.S. residents should have a reasonable expectation that their digital records are private, said Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican.
Many of the rules for the NSA's phone records program are internal operating procedures, Lee said. "What is a policy, which may be followed religiously, could change tomorrow," he said. "We've seen this movie before. We know how it ends. We know that eventually, if that much information remains in the hands of government for that long, it will eventually be abused."
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]