Intelligence agency lawyers urge retention of secret data

 By Stephen Braun

Associated Press
 
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior national security lawyers on Monday told an independent oversight board examining U.S. surveillance programs that the government needs to keep its trove of innocent Americans’ telephone records despite growing efforts in Congress to shut down the program.
 
The lawyers also told the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board during a hearing that a secret overseas Internet data-gathering program exposed last week was not an attempt to evade scrutiny by a federal intelligence court that supervises such operations. Top officials of Google and Yahoo have criticized the program, in which the National Security Agency reportedly tapped into fiber optic cables that funnel the data overseas. The government did not dispute that it tapped the cables overseas for Internet traffic but said it wasn’t doing so to avoid U.S. legal restrictions.

If Congress were to shut down the government’s collection of Americans’ phone records every day, which it has been secretly doing since 2006, “we wouldn’t be able to see the patterns that the NSA’s programs provide us,” said Patrick Kelley, acting general counsel of the FBI. Kelley added that the FBI would not be able to weed out significant phone data if it did not have the NSA’s massive data bank to tap into, and would lose valuable time if it had to instead seek the data from individual phone companies.

The NSA’s general counsel, Rajesh De, declined to comment about published details describing the U.S. tapping into fiber optic cables to extract Internet data about customers of Google and Yahoo without the knowledge of the technology companies. But De insisted that the program was not an attempt to avoid the supervision of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Surveillance efforts aimed at the leaders of Germany and other European governments as well as thousands of their citizens have also roiled relations between the U.S. and its allies.

The five members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board are appointed by President Barack Obama but report to Congress. The board has set no deadline but has been meeting for months with national security officials to scrutinize the surveillance programs and their impact on civil liberties.

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