Officials arrive to testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers and intelligence chiefs, facing an outcry over the government's collection of personal communications data, said on Thursday they were open to measures tightening oversight of the government's sweeping electronic eavesdropping programs.
At a hearing on how to change the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to balance security and privacy concerns, the Senate Intelligence Committee unveiled provisions of proposed legislation to set new controls on government surveillance.
Among other things, the measure would set tighter standards on which telephone and internet records the National Security Agency can collect and limit the time that records can be held, said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee's chairwoman.
Acknowledging a "lowering of trust" in U.S. spy agencies, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he would consider measures including limiting how long data is kept and releasing more information about how it is used.
Clapper and other witnesses, NSA Director Keith Alexander and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, also said they would consider allowing the appointment of an outside advocate for some important cases in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the eavesdropping programs.
President Barack Obama said in August he supported the idea, which is also backed by many lawmakers.
The Intelligence Committee is considering requiring that analysts have a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that a telephone number was associated with terrorism before querying government telephone records, Feinstein said.
It would also make the appointment of the director of the NSA subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Concern about surveillance - and privacy - has been growing since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information starting in June that the government collects far more internet and telephone data than previously known.
Thursday's hearing was the latest in a series in Congress to address concerns over the scope of the NSA programs.
Witnesses and some panel members condemned Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and then Russia with classified data. Several also blasted what they termed inaccurate reporting by the media that they said had further eroded the public's trust.
"There's no way to erase or make up for the damage that has already been done. We anticipate more as we continue our assessment," Clapper said.
Many legislators - especially on the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees, which oversee the confidential programs - staunchly defended the surveillance.
Feinstein said the programs protected Americans from attacks like the recent massacre in Kenya.
"The death and destruction we saw at the Westgate mall in Nairobi could have been at a mall in the United States," Feinstein said, adding it was "no coincidence" that one of the few declassified FISA court cases involved al-Shabaab, the group claiming responsibility for the Kenya attack.
The intelligence panel is due to debate its legislation next week, a prelude toward sending the bill for consideration by the full Senate.
Sharp divisions are expected within the committee.
Four senators, including Intelligence Committee Democrats Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, introduced their own bill on Wednesday with stricter controls than outlined by Feinstein. For example, they would bar the bulk collection of telephone data.
Wyden promised "vigorous debate."
Several pieces of legislation have also been introduced in the House, where a bid to gut the surveillance programs was defeated by just five votes in July.
The Senate committee's proposed bill would take at least one step toward making surveillance easier, by closing the "terrorist lottery" loophole.
Currently, when a suspect is being tracked outside the United States, surveillance has to stop if he enters the country. The proposed bill would let it continue for seven days before agents must ask the court for authorization.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)