WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's national security team argued Wednesday to keep its sweeping domestic surveillance powers intact, even as it acknowledged some limitations appear inevitable.
Facing unexpectedly harsh opposition from both parties over a once-secret program that sweeps up the phone records of every American, the Obama administration said it wanted to work with lawmakers who seemed intent on putting limits on that authority.
"We are open to re-evaluating this program in ways that can perhaps provide greater confidence and public trust that this is in fact a program that achieves both privacy protections and national security," Robert Litt, counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told skeptical members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The hearing came one week after a surprisingly close vote in the House that would have killed the phone surveillance program. It barely survived, but lawmakers promised that change was coming.
This newest privacy-vs.- security debate was touched off when former government contract systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing National Security Agency programs that store years of phone records on every American. That revelation prompted the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after 9/11.
The administration intended to keep the telephone program a secret forever and, for more than a decade, few in Congress showed any interest in reining in the surveillance. Snowden's leaks abruptly changed the calculus on Capitol Hill.
"We have a lot of good information out there that helps the American public understand these programs, but it all came out late," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in a rebuke of government secrecy. "It all came out in response to a leaker. There was no organized plan for how we rationally declassify this so that the American people can participate in the debate."
The telephone program is authorized under a provision of the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after 9/11.
The Obama administration says phone records are the only records being collecting in bulk under that law, but it has left open the ability to create similar databases of people's credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.