By Pete Yost
and Matt Apuzzo
WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama’s national security team acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that, when investigating one suspected terrorist, it can read and store the phone records of millions of Americans.
Since it was revealed recently that the National Security Agency puts the phone records of every American into a database, the Obama administration has assured the nation that such records are rarely searched and, when they are, officials target only suspected international terrorists.
Meanwhile, at a hacker convention in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the head of the NSA said government methods used to collect telephone and email data helped foil 54 terror plots — a figure that drew open skepticism from lawmakers back in Washington. “Not by any stretch can you get 54 terrorist plots,” said the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
More than a decade after the terror attacks of 2001, the phone-record surveillance program has stirred deep privacy concerns on Capitol Hill, where Leahy said Wednesday during an oversight hearing: “If this program is not effective, it has to end,” adding that, “So far I’m not convinced by what I’ve seen.”
In the House earlier this month, lawmakers said they never intended to allow the NSA to build a database of every phone call in America, and they threatened to curtail the government’s surveillance authority. “You’ve got a problem,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told top intelligence officials weeks ago.
Sensing a looming shift in the privacy-versus-security cultural calculus, the White House responded: It has ordered the director of national intelligence to recommend changes that could be made to the phone-surveillance program, and President Barack Obama invited a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House today to discuss their concerns about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
A White House official said the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate intelligence panels will attend. So will Democratic Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado and Ron Wyden of Oregon, two lawmakers who raised the alarm about the NSA’s sweeping domestic programs. Two others calling for more NSA oversight, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sensenbrenner, will also attend.
The administration has emphasized what it describes as oversight of its activities by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, by congressional committees and by internal auditors. It has said, for example, that under rules approved by the court, only 22 people at NSA were allowed to approve searches of the phone database, and only seven positions at NSA, a total of 11 people, were authorized to disclose any results believed to be associated with persons in the United States.
Testimony before Congress on Wednesday showed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analyzed by the government.
It hinges on what’s known as “hop” or “chain” analysis. When the NSA identifies a suspect, it can look not just at his phone records, but also the records of everyone he calls, everyone who calls those people and everyone who calls those people.
If the average person called 40 unique people, three-hop analysis would allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.