RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And let's hear now about more leaks about government surveillance from Edward Snowden, and more signs that Congress wants to limit that kind of surveillance. The latest round of leaks showed up in The Guardian newspaper, in an article detailing the power of a program that searches the Internet for everything from e-mail traffic to Web surfing.
As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the government continues to insist these efforts are legal and that it respects civil liberties.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The latest Snowden leaks focus on a program called XKeyscore, a tool that the National Security Agency admits it uses as part of what it calls lawful foreign signal intelligence collection. The Guardian article says that X-key score can access and search the content of emails and internet serving activity. The NSA insist the program is subject to strict oversight and is limited to trained analysts who show a legitimate need for the information.
Congress is still digesting earlier Snowden leaks that disclosed other NSA capabilities. Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy started off a committee hearing Wednesday by questioning the legality of one effort, a massive database of telephone calling records.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: The government is already collecting data on millions of innocent Americans on a daily basis based on a secret legal interpretation of a statute that does not, on its face, appear to authorize this kind of bulk collection
ABRAMSON: Government witnesses strenuously defended that program. They came armed with newly declassified documents, some showed that Congress has been notified about how these programs work. Others demonstrate the legal gauntlet that analysts must run through before they can search through those phone numbers. Those witnesses said they are open to modifications of the program, but only very limited ones.
FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce pointed out his agency was criticized after 9/11 for not connecting the dots that could've predicted the attacks.
SEAN JOYCE: You mentioned about the dots. We must have the dots to connect the dots.
ABRAMSON: The NSA collects a lot of dots but insists that most sit unused. Senator Diane Feinstein, a defender of these efforts, said NSA documents show that of the millions of phone records, the data was only searched 300 times last year.
SENATOR DIANE FEINSTEIN: In 2012, based on those fewer than 300 selectors, that's queries, which actually were 288 for Americans, we provided a total of 12 reports to the FBI.
ABRAMSON: Some members of Congress say that number masks the true extent of potential privacy invasions. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois pointed out each government query of the database can make three hops from the suspect to all of his contacts to all of his contacts' contacts and so on.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN: If I had an average of 40 contacts, that would mean that for my name, my query, you would accumulate 2 million phone records, 2 million for that one inquiry.
ABRAMSON: Senators broached a couple of possible reforms that might ease civil liberties concerns. How about throwing the data out sooner, in two years, rather than the current five? The government witnesses said that might limit the usefulness of the database. Senator Durbin floated another idea before NSA Deputy Director John Inglis.
DURBIN: If we required the phone companies to retain the records for five years, it would not be in the grasp of the government, but accessed by the government which serves the same purpose, does it not?
JOHN INGLIS: I agree, but under the current legal framing, the phone companies are not required to retain that for the benefit of the government.
DURBIN: How hard would that be?
INGLIS: I think it would require a legal change. I don't think that's hard.
ABRAMSON: But the NSA says it has asked the phone companies to do this in the past and they have resisted. And one telecom executive told NPR the idea would create more legal problems than it would solve and he said his company has no interest in maintaining a repository for government searches. And with continuing revelations about how surveillance programs work, Congress may have to come up with more than just one fix. Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.