NSA

Federal officials continue to defend the National Security Agency’s collection of Americans’ phone records, but public and congressional support is eroding. Even supporters say changes may be needed.

By Ken Dilanian
July 27, 2013, 6:05 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A reporter recently asked the National Security Agency’s chief a blunt question: Why can’t he come up with a better example of a terrorism plot foiled through the bulk collection of U.S. phone records?

In the weeks since Edward Snowden disclosed that the NSA had been collecting and storing the calling histories of nearly every American, NSA Director Keith Alexander and other U.S. officials have cited only one case as having been discovered exclusively by searching those records: some San Diego men who sent $8,500 to Al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia.

Although intelligence officials and the White House continue to defend the mass data collection, support has clearly eroded among the public and in Congress. A coalition of libertarians on the right and civil liberties advocates on the left came six votes short of passing an amendment in the House last week to curtail bulk collection of phone records, but no one believes that will be the last word.

Even Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the House and Senate intelligence committee leaders who have defended the NSA’s collection of phone records since the program was disclosed, are among those who concede that changes would probably be needed.

“We will work to find additional privacy protections with this program,” Rogers said during House debate over the amendment.

The shift in public opinion about the government’s data collection efforts is clear. A Pew Research Center survey released Friday asked Americans whether they were more concerned that government programs to combat terrorism were going too far and endangering civil liberties or that they were not going far enough and leaving the country unprotected. For the first time since Pew began asking that question in 2004, more Americans, 47%, said their greater concern was the threat to civil liberties, compared with 35% who worried the programs don’t go far enough to protect the country.

As recently as 2010, only a third of Americans said they worried the government’s anti-terrorism efforts went too far.

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