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US lawmakers propose reforming NSA spying powers

Dianne Feinstein speaks to the media on Capitol Hill, on September 5, 2013 in Washington
Dianne Feinstein speaks to the media on Capitol Hill, on September 5, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Lawmakers overseeing US spy agencies on Thursday proposed stricter limits on the government's electronic surveillance while also calling for bolstering its authority to track terror suspects coming to America.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended the National Security Agency's collection of phone and email records as legal but said she and other members of the panel favored reforms to bolster oversight and restrict some data collection.

"Among other things, we are considering provisions to do the following: place limits on NSA's phone metadata program to change but preserve this program," Feinstein said at a committee hearing with intelligence chiefs.

While calling for tougher rules, the senator also said she backed measures to enhance the government's spying authority to monitor terror suspects entering the United States. The move was needed because current rules require the NSA to halt surveillance once the suspect sets foot on American soil, she said.

"These are known as roaming incidents. Of course, this collection is stopped just as the individual may be -- may be -- of the greatest concern," she said.

In the wake of revelations by intelligence leaker Edward Snowden about the government's electronic dragnet, Feinstein lamented media reports that she said had often "inaccurately" portrayed the NSA's work and had unfairly sowed public distrust of the spy agencies.

However, a tense exchange at the hearing underscored lingering questions and concerns among some lawmakers about the scope of NSA surveillance.

The head of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, sidestepped questions from Senator Mark Wyden about whether the government has ever used or planned to use mobile phone data to track the location of Americans.

Alexander said the NSA can only collect "cell phone site" data with a specific court order but did not give a clear yes or no answer to the question.

"General, if you're responding to my question by not answering it, because you think that's a classified matter, that is certainly your right," said Wyden, who has been an outspoken critic of NSA secrecy and its electronic surveillance.

"We will continue to explore that because I believe this is something the American people have a right to know whether the NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell site information."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA's eavesdropping, has ruled that the agency would need to ask for court approval to collect geographic location information from mobile phone signals.

Data on a mobile phone's connection to mobile phone towers can be used to pinpoint where a caller is located.

Alexander, along with US intelligence chief James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, said they were open to some reforms, including placing limits on how long phone records may be retained and adding a "constitutional advocate" to the court overseeing the NSA.

"We are open to a number of ideas that have been proposed in various quarters to address concerns about the business records program," according to their joint statement to the intelligence committee.