WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's national security team acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that, when investigating one suspected terrorist, it can read and store the phone records of millions of Americans.
Since it was revealed recently that the National Security Agency puts the phone records of every American into a database, the Obama administration has assured the nation that such records are rarely searched and, when they are, officials target only suspected international terrorists.
Meanwhile, at a hacker convention in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the head of the NSA said government methods used to collect telephone and email data helped foil 54 terror plots - a figure that drew open skepticism from lawmakers back in Washington. "Not by any stretch can you get 54 terrorist plots," said the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
From left, National Security Agency Deputy Director John C. Inglis, Robert Litt, general counsel in the Office of Director of National Intelligence, and Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI., testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, as the Senate Intelligence Committee questioned top Obama administration officials about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs for the first time since the House narrowly rejected a proposal last week to effectively shut down the NSA's secret collection of hundreds of millions of Americans' phone records.
More than a decade after the terror attacks of 2001, the phone-record surveillance program has stirred deep privacy concerns on Capitol Hill, where Leahy said Wednesday during an oversight hearing: "If this program is not effective, it has to end," adding that, "So far I'm not convinced by what I've seen."
In the House earlier this month, lawmakers said they never intended to allow the NSA to build a database of every phone call in America, and they threatened to curtail the government's surveillance authority. "You've got a problem," Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told top intelligence officials weeks ago. Sensing a looming shift in the privacy-versus-security cultural calculus, the White House responded: It has ordered the director of national intelligence to recommend changes that could be made to the phone-surveillance program, and President Barack Obama invited a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House on Thursday to discuss their concerns about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs.
The administration has emphasized what it describes as oversight of its activities by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, by congressional committees and by internal auditors. It has said, for example, that under rules approved by the court, only 22 people at NSA were allowed to approve searches of the phone database, and only seven positions at NSA, a total of 11 people, were authorized to disclose any results believed to be associated with persons in the United States.
Testimony before Congress on Wednesday showed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analyzed by the government.
It hinges on what's known as "hop" or "chain" analysis. When the NSA identifies a suspect, it can look not just at his phone records, but also 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, three-hop 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. Left unsaid until Wednesday was that three-hop analysis off those searches could mean scrutinizing the phone records of tens or even hundreds of millions of people.
"So what has been described as a discrete program, to go after people who would cause us harm, when you look at the reach of this program, it envelopes a substantial number of Americans," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.