Government braces for coming changes to NSA powers

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s national security team argued Wednesday to keep its sweeping domestic surveillance powers intact, even as it acknowledged some limitations appear inevitable.

Facing unexpectedly harsh opposition from both parties over its once-secret program capable of sweeping up the phone records of every American, the Obama administration said it wanted to work with lawmakers who seemed intent on putting limits on that authority.

“We are open to re-evaluating this program in ways that can perhaps provide greater confidence and public trust that this is in fact a program that achieves both privacy protections and national security,” Robert Litt, counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told skeptical members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The hearing came one week after a surprisingly close vote in the House that would have killed the phone surveillance program. It barely survived, but lawmakers promised that change was coming.

This newest privacy-vs.-collective security debate was touched off when former government contract systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing National Security Agency 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 in the wake of the harrowing Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

On Wednesday, the national security establishment sought to reassure Congress that their surveillance powers were rigorously monitored and narrowly crafted while simultaneously leaving open the possibility of some new limitations.

To that end, the administration declassified documents about the telephone program. But the documents revealed no legal analysis that underpinned the widespread surveillance. And the redacted documents show only in broad strokes how NSA officials use the data.

For the first time, however, the government acknowledged publicly that using what it calls “hop analysis,” it can analyze the phone calls of millions of Americans in the hunt for just one suspected terrorist. That’s because NSA analysts can look at not just a suspect’s 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 calls 40 unique people, three-hop analysis could allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.

“What’s being described as a very narrow program is really a very broad program,” said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

John Inglis, the NSA’s deputy director, conceded the point but said, in practice, such broad analysis was rare.

“We have to compare the theory to the practice,” he said.

Last week’s House vote of 217-205 defeating an attempt to dismantle the program was significant not only because of the narrowness of the victory for the Obama administration, but also because it created unusual political coalitions. Libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats pressed for change against the Republican establishment and Congress’ national security experts.

Backing the NSA program were 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who typically does not vote, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Rejecting the administration’s last-minute pleas to spare the surveillance operation were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats.

More in Local News

‘Come talk to me. Don’t jump, come talk to me’

State Patrol trooper Yaroslav Holodkov just happened to be driving by when he saw a suicidal man.

Marysville educators reach out to a newly traumatized school

Several affected by shootings in 2014 offered to talk with counterparts in Eastern Washington.

Serial killer wannabe admits trying to kill man she met online

She told police she planned to rip out her victim’s heart and eat it — and would continue killing.

Hurry! Target will take your old car seat, but not for long

The seats will be taken apart and the various materials recycled.

Sheriff’s Office receives national recognition

Sheriff accepts award “notable achievements in the field of highway safety” over the past year.

Edmonds-Woodway High School briefly locked down

A student tried to stop a fight and a boy, 16, responded by threatening the student with a knife.

Study considers making it legal to grow marijuana at home

The Liquor and Cannabis Board is considering two scenarios for allowing a minimal number of plants.

Minutes mattered the day Pat Ward was brought back to life

The Mukilteo police and fire chaplain died at breakfast. She got a second chance thanks to a waitress.

Hot weather takes toll on young Christmas trees

The effect is likely to be felt in the years to come when they would have been cut.

Most Read