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Top spy lawyers reject end to massive data collections

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 9:18 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's top national security lawyers on Monday shunned the idea that the government should stop collecting copies of every American's telephone records every day.

The lawyers told an independent oversight board that it would lose valuable time if each time it began a terror investigation it had to seek the private billing records from individual phone companies.

They told the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board during a rare public hearing that a secret overseas Internet data-gathering program exposed last week was not an attempt to evade scrutiny by the federal intelligence court that supervises such operations. Top officials of Google and Yahoo 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 legal restrictions.

Much of the board's session with government lawyers dealt with congressional proposals that would shift retention of phone and Internet records to private companies, instead of storing them at the National Security Agency.

The lawyers warned that the government's ability to conduct counter-terrorism investigations would be hampered by the loss of its data collections.

If Congress were to shut down the government's collection of phone records, 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 huge data bank to tap into and would lose valuable time if it had to instead seek the data from individual phone companies.

Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the White House is considering keeping copies of the records for fewer than five years and may reduce the types of information that it searches.

Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, told CNN he was shocked by the latest revelations. Schmidt described the operation as “perhaps a violation of law but certainly a violation of mission.”

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