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Some curbs on NSA data collection endorsed by key senator

WASHINGTON – A proposal backed by President Obama to constrain the National Security Agency’s systematic collection of Americans’ telephone data drew a cautious welcome Sunday from a key congressional leader, but she offered a few significant caveats.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, welcomed several aspects of the plan, which was developed by the Justice Department and intelligence officials and endorsed Tuesday by the president during his recent European trip. It still requires congressional approval.

Under the proposal, bulk records on Americans’ phone calls would be the hands of telephone companies, which would not be required to retain the data any longer than they normally would. A judge’s permission would be required for the NSA to obtain specific records.

Feinstein, in her most detailed reaction to the proposal, endorsed Obama’s idea not to force the telecommunications companies to hold on to call data longer than they normally would – a minimum of 18 months under current federal regulations. The NSA currently keeps the data for five years.

Feinstein, appearing on the CNN program “State of the Union,” said that it was not clear that all the telecoms, skittish after revelations of their involvement, were willing to hold the data unless legally required to do so. “When we talked to them,” she said, “they were not.”

She said that having the initial request for data conducted by telecom personnel instead of agency analysts raises another concern: “Is privacy as controlled as it is with 22 vetted people at the National Security Agency who are supervised and watched with everything they do?”

Feinstein also sided with the White House proposal on an alternative suggested last week by the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee on a key question: whether a judge should be required to sign off each time before the NSA views calling records, except in emergencies. Obama has said that there should be prior judicial review, while the House committee would allow the agency to subpoena the records directly.

Michael J. Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA who was on the panel that made the recommendations supported by Obama, said that he thought the president’s plan and the approach of the House committee were “very, very close to each other.”

If the House plan is adopted, “I’m comfortable with that,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the NSA as well as of the CIA, said that he, too, was comfortable with such a compromise.

“There’s powerful convergence between what the president is suggesting and what the House Intelligence Committee’s actually embodied in legislation,” he said on “Face the Nation.”

“So I think we’ve arrived at a solution that actually makes us more safe, that gives people higher comfort, that the government would not potentially abuse it.”

Feinstein also supported the proposed requirement for court approval of each request for phone data, saying, “I happen to believe it could be done on an emergency basis.” She backed limits that allow the tracing of calls back through only two “hops” – or calling links – from a suspect in an effort to identify the suspect’s associates.

Similar concerns were raised Sunday by a leading congressional critic of NSA surveillance, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. He said the proposed reforms were only a start.

“We’re certainly going to be watchdogging the way the phone companies handle this,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”