In a mostly friendly and non-confrontational hearing on Tuesday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spent a couple of hours talking to members of the White House-appointed NSA review board about the extent of the agency’s surveillance and the panel’s recommendations for reform. The hearing covered almost no new ground, with committee members spending much of the time asking questions about intelligence collection and sharing pre-9/11 and whether the metadata program could have helped prevent those attacks or has prevented any since then.
The hearing, which was included only a handful of committee members most of the time, was ostensibly about the report produced by the White House panel in December and the 46 recommendations in it regarding intelligence collection programs and potential abuses by the NSA. The panel recommended a number of changes to the controversial Section 215 and 702 collection programs, and the committee members asked a litany of questions about those, specifically about the metadata program, which has drawn shard criticism from lawmakers and privacy advocates.
Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that he did not believe the Section 215 program produced enough results to justify its existence.
“I’ve concluded that the phone record program is not uniquely valuable enough to justify a massive intrusion on Americans’ privacy,” he said.
Michael J. Morell, the former acting director of the CIA and a member of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, said that the panel did not believe it was necessary to eliminate the metadata program, but had no evidence that it had prevented any terror attacks, either.
“We did not recommend the end of the 215 program,” he said. “It is absolutely true that the 215 program hasn’t played a significant role in disrupting any attacks to this point. But it only has to be successful once to be important.”
NSA officials and some lawmakers have defended the metadata program on the grounds that it does not collect the content of calls, but rather the information about the originating and terminating numbers and the length of the call. However, Morell said that during the research for the report the panel wrote, he came to the conclusion that metadata can tell observers a lot about a target’s activities.
“There is quite a bit of content in metadata and when you have the records of the phone calls an individual made, you can learn quite a bit about an individual,” he said.
The committee also spent some time addressing the issue of whether the metadata program would have prevented the attacks of 9/11, something that NSA officials have asserted in recent months. Asked whether that was the case, Richard Clarke, the former White House security adviser, said that it was impossible to know.
“It’s impossible to go back and reconstruct history,” Clarke said. “It’s very difficult to say with accuracy if one fact had been changed whether the outcome would’ve been significantly different.”