Intelligence chiefs say they are open to measures to increase oversight of the US government’s electronic eavesdropping programs.
At a hearing on how to change the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to balance security and privacy concerns yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee unveiled provisions of proposed legislation to set new controls on government surveillance.
Among other things, the measure would set tighter standards on which telephone and internet records the National Security Agency (NSA) can collect and limit the time that records can be held, said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee's chairwoman.
Acknowledging a "lowering of trust" in US spy agencies, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he would consider measures including limiting how long data is kept and releasing more information about how it is used.
Clapper and other witnesses, NSA Director Keith Alexander and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, also said they would consider allowing the appointment of an outside advocate for some important cases in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the eavesdropping programs.
President Barack Obama said in August he supported the idea, which is also backed by many lawmakers.
The Intelligence Committee is considering requiring that analysts have a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that a telephone number was associated with terrorism before querying government telephone records, Feinstein said.
It would also make the appointment of the director of the NSA subject to confirmation by the US Senate.
Concern about surveillance – and privacy – has been growing since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information starting in June that the government collects far more internet and telephone data than previously known.
Thursday's hearing was the latest in a series in Congress to address concerns over the scope of the NSA programs.
Many legislators – especially on the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees, which oversee the confidential programs – have staunchly defended the surveillance.
The intelligence panel is due to debate its legislation next week, a prelude toward sending the bill for consideration by the full Senate but sharp divisions are expected within the committee.
Four senators, including Intelligence Committee Democrats Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, introduced their own bill on Wednesday with stricter controls than outlined by Feinstein. For example, they would bar the bulk collection of telephone data.
Several pieces of legislation have also been introduced in the House, where a bid to gut the surveillance programs was defeated by just five votes in July.