By Alex Zank
As Senate Intelligence Committee members and top security officials defended controversial telephone data collection programs Thursday on Capitol Hill, they also said they're working on legislation to amend the scope of the surveillance.
Committee Chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who called the National Security Agency programs lawful, blamed media sensationalism for a public misconception about how the programs affect privacy in the context of national security.
"The NSA surveillance programs have protected against dozens of attacks against the United States," Feinstein said during her opening statement at a rare public hearing of the committee.
Still, Feinstein announced she was working with Republicans on legislation to limit the metadata collection program and provide more congressional oversight. Among the changes being considered: requiring an annual report on how the collected data is used, requiring Senate confirmation for the NSA director position, and spelling out how the NSA determines which phone numbers might be linked with suspected terrorists.
Thursday's hearing comes amid escalating public concern about privacy and the scope of the NSA surveillance authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act. Revelations about those programs started with leaks to the media from government contractor Edward Snowden, and caused President Barack Obama to form a group to review the agency’s actions.
On Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole repeated many of the arguments from his previous testimony about the issue on Capitol Hill oversight hearings. He said the FISA Court reviews the NSA's collection of phone metadata—key details about a call like the number called and the call length, but not the content of the call—every 90 days.
The surveillance court's regular re-approval under Section 702 of FISA and Section 215 of the Patriot Act shows the program "satisfies all constitutional requirements" and the Justice Department looks forward to working with the committee on the issues. "We welcome having public debate and discussion of whether section 215 strikes the right balance between national security and privacy," Cole said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a critics of the surveillance programs, said greater transparency would have prevented some public skepticism.
"With the loss of trust in the intelligence apparatus ... it's going to take time to rebuild," he said. "It could have been avoided if the intelligence community was straight with the American people. I hope this serves as a lesson."
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