NSA didn't abuse authority with phone records, ex-CIA official says

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WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency didn't abuse its authority in collecting the bulk phone records of millions of Americans and the spy program should continue under a new structure, Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director, said Sunday.

The collection of information such as numbers dialed and call durations is important to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Mr. Morell said on CBS's "Face the Nation" program.

"There was no abuse here," said Mr. Morell, who served on an advisory panel picked by President Barack Obama that recommended limits on data collection and storage in a report released Wednesday. "They were doing exactly what they were told to do."

Mr. Obama and lawmakers are debating whether to restrain spy programs after documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the agency's surveillance activities.

Much of the debate has focused on the collection of phone metadata, under which the NSA receives phone records from U.S. telecommunications companies and stores them in a database that can be queried to determine if a suspected terrorist overseas has called someone in the U.S.

The phone records program "was not essential to preventing attacks" and information needed to disrupt terrorist plots "could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional" court orders, the five-member Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology said in its report.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon also ruled last Monday that collecting bulk phone records is probably illegal, allowing a lawsuit to go forward alleging it violates the U.S. Constitution.

The Founding Fathers "would be astounded to see what NSA and others are doing," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on NBC's "Meet the Press." Mr. Leahy said he will hold a hearing on Jan. 14 on the review panel's findings.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said on CNN's "State of the Union" that lawmakers need to protect privacy while maintaining national security.

"There's a fine balance," he said.

Mr. Snowden, who is in Russia under temporary asylum, leaked records about the spy programs to news organizations starting in June. Since then, there have been calls by U.S. allies, members of Congress, civil liberties groups and companies such as Apple and Facebook to provide more transparency and scale back some of the operations.

Mr. Morell, the former Central Intelligence Agency official, said there's a misperception that the review group didn't find value in the phone records program. NSA queries the database of records about 200 times a year, resulting in a dozen or 15 tips that are passed to the FBI for review, he said.

The review group concluded that phone companies or a third party -- possibly a nonprofit consortium -- should store the phone records rather than the NSA.

"The government should not hold this data any longer," Mr. Morell said. "We will leave it an open question who should."

The NSA would be required to go to the secretive court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to get a warrant to query the data, according to the review group.

Having a nongovernmental entity store the data could increase the time it takes for the government to access the records, possibly up to a week, Mr. Morell said. The panel recommended that there be an exception for emergencies, he said.

The review panel also included Richard Clarke, a former U.S. cybersecurity adviser; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who once worked in the administration; and Peter Swire, who served on Mr. Obama's National Economic Council.

Mr. Obama said at a Friday news conference that he will act in January on recommendations of the review panel.


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