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A "third party" stirs the NSA reform debate

Sen. Udall: Obama did “right thing” in reining in data collection 05:28

Updated at 7:10 p.m.

President Obama’s Friday speech outlining proposed reforms to the U.S. surveillance apparatus has done little to unite lawmakers and former administration official who hold starkly different views on the matter.

At the heart of ongoing disagreements is who should control the vast troves of phone records that the National Security Agency uses for its analysis. A review panel assembled by the president recommended in December  that the database either be controlled by a third party or the telephone agencies that provide it to the NSA. In the Friday speech, Mr. Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence community to figure out the precise way the metadata can be transferred to the government from a third party.

For privacy advocates like Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat, the decision was a win. “I think the president reached a milestone on Friday,” Udall said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday. “We’re now in a position to keep faith with the Constitution, to also respect American's privacy.”


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 But Mr. Obama’s decision did not sit well with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said that moving the data to the private sector will open up concerns about privacy that haven’t yet been considered.

“Divorce lawyers are going to have a heyday. Private detectives on any civil matter anywhere in the country are going to have a heyday. The companies tell us they will be deluged with warrants on these telephone records that the companies can't sustain. And they're there to provide service to their customers, not work for the government,” Rogers said.

Udall said Rogers’ concerns – a “parade of horrible” he called them – were a “little bit of a reach.” He said the Americans’ phone metadata could provide a picture of people’s lives, and that the bulk collection program has not provided “uniquely valuable” intelligence.


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 Former Obama administration officials Tom Donilon, who was the president’s NSA advisor, and Mike Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA and members of the review panel, defended the program as both legal and useful.

Morell said it would be best to move the database into the private sector because the government has shown it is “not capable of protecting classified information.” But he defended his view that analysis of phone records could have helped to prevent the 9/11 attacks by allowing the NSA to find at least one of the hijackers and alert the FBI.

There is also disagreement about whether the NSA has abused its authority. Rogers praised the president for saying the program had not been abused, but Udall  maintains it has, citing a 2009 ruling from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that found there were several “unintentional abuses.”

Again, both Obama administration officials defended the program.

“I think what this discussion is about is emphatically not about abuses and indeed, the president's review commission found no evidence of abuse of these programs.  But what this is about is the technology, the power of the technology and the future and about how to ensure that these programs operate consistent with our values and in ways that give confidence to both people in the United States and around the world that are being operated in an appropriate way,” Donilon said.


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 Morell said there were just “a handful of cases” where NSA employees looked into the phone records database for personal reasons. “But that's the limited abuse that has taken place. There has been no systematic abuse, there has been no political abuse,” he said.

(Editor's note: Morell contacted CBS news late Sunday to correct a statement he'd made on "Face the Nation."  "It was wrong when I implied that there were a handful of cases where NSA employees looked into the 215 phone records database for personal reasons.  There were 12 cases in the last 10 years where employees were caught willfully misusing a system -- but none of the 12 cases were related to 215 or 702.  There were in other NSA programs.")

Udall predicted that some reforms will be implemented in the next year when Congress must renew the NSA’s legal authority.

“Without real reform -- not a veneer of reform, but the reform that the president's panel proposed and in many ways, the president proposed on Friday -- these laws will expire. So we have real motivation to get it right and to work together,” Udall said. “I'm heartened by the fact that the concerns about these programs have been from right, left and center. This has not divided on partisan lines; American's privacy is at the heart of our freedoms.”

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