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US defends NSA powers but prepares for changes

July 31, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s national security team acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that it can read and store the phone records of millions of Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.

The testimony to Congress came as concerns remain high over citizens’ privacy after details of the once-secretive programs were leaked in recent weeks. Obama invited a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House on Thursday to discuss the National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Since it was revealed that the NSA puts the phone records of every American into a database, the Obama administration has said such records are rarely searched. When they are, officials target only suspected international terrorists.

But testimony to Congress showed how easy it is for the government to analyze the calling patterns of Americans with no connection to terrorism.

It hinges on what’s known as “hop” or “chain” analysis. When the NSA identifies a suspect, it can look at his phone records and also at 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, the analysis would allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.

The NSA has said it conducted 300 searches of its telephone database last year. The analysis of those searches could mean scrutinizing the phone records of tens or even hundreds of millions of people.

“When you look at the reach of this program, it envelopes a substantial number of Americans,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

John Inglis, the NSA’s deputy director, said NSA officials “try to be judicious” about conducting the analysis.

Such reassurances have done little to quiet the sharp criticism from both top political parties over the once-secret surveillance program. Last week saw a close vote in the House of Representatives on a measure that tried to kill the phone surveillance program.

On Wednesday, the administration acknowledged some limitations to its sweeping surveillance powers are inevitable.

This national debate of privacy versus national security began when former government systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing NSA programs that store years of phone records on every American.

That revelation prompted the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The administration intended to keep the telephone program a secret forever, and few in Congress had shown any interest in limiting it. Snowden’s leaks abruptly changed that.

The telephone program is authorized under a provision of the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after the 2001 attacks against the U.S.

The Obama administration says phone records are the only records being collected in bulk under that law, but it has left open the ability to create similar databases of people’s credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.

Several lawmakers promised bills that would provide tighter controls or more transparency. Proposals include eliminating the FBI’s ability to seize data without a court order, changing the way judges are appointed to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and appointing an attorney to argue against the government in secret proceedings before that court.

Another would force the government to reveal how many Americans have had their information swept up in surveillance.


Associated Press writers Pete Yost and Matt Apuzzo contributed.

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