GOP skepticism over NSA program widens

A New Hampshire senator questions whether feds should use resources to assemble vast databases of Americans' phone calls.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
2 min read
WASHINGTON--A Republican senator on Monday questioned whether the federal government should be using its resources for large-scale data-mining efforts such as those associated with the National Security Agency's wiretapping program.

Speaking at a privacy seminar here at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire said the latest revelations that the nation's three biggest phone companies have delivered call records on potentially millions of Americans to the NSA raise concerns about the government's encroachment into private citizens' lives, even if the actions were legal.

"The important question is whether or not this is activity that we think will yield a good result and whether we think it's activity in which the federal government should be engaged," Sununu said.

Voicing similar concerns about the FBI data-mining system once known as Carnivore, Sununu deemed the value of such databases "certainly untested" and said they were potentially ripe for "misuse."

"That's the history of the federal government, is that once you create a tool, create a database, create a program, oftentimes it then begins to seek out new uses, new opportunities, new activities that weren't part of its original charter," he said.

When speaking about the NSA program, Sununu chose his words carefully, saying he didn't doubt the accuracy of the Bush administration's descriptions of the closely guarded program and even going so far as to say he believed the appropriate congressional leadership had been adequately briefed on the matter.

In that sense he seemed to take a more moderate stance than his colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter, who has been perhaps the most vocal Republican to question the Bush administration's actions. Public criticism of the program has been limited largely to Democrats.

Asked whether he expected Congress to take action against AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon Communications for reportedly turning over records to the feds, Sununu said he didn't think the companies themselves deserved the blame. (Specter, meanwhile, has vowed to call in the company executives for questioning.)

"Again, that's not because I think that the program is one that should receive support without question," Sununu said, "but because I understand that the federal government has a great deal of power, is viewed as being responsible in this area, and for a person in a position of responsibility to comply with that is understandable."

Sununu said he saw no reason to believe that the information had even been obtained illegally by the government, noting that they could have "easily" used National Security Letters under the Patriot Act to obtain phone records. The controversial NSLs compel communication service providers to provide records about individuals but do not require the use of a court warrant.

The real question, Sununu said, is, "Do you want (the government) to be creating these large, broad databases? Do you see a very specific value to doing so? That's where I begin to get queasy."