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Mixed reception for Heller intelligence data transparency bill

WASHINGTON — Sen. Dean Heller delivered a pitch on Wednesday for Congress to peel back some of the secrecy surrounding the government’s collection of data on Americans. But intelligence officials said some of his plan might be unworkable.

The Nevada Republican was the leadoff speaker at a Senate Judiciary hearing on privacy. He spoke in support of a bill he introduced with Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that would require the government to expand its reporting on surveillance it conducts through the gathering of bulk communications records.

The bill calls for disclosure of the number of Americans whose information is collected inadvertently and reviewed by federal agents.

It also would allow communications and Internet companies to voluntarily disclose the number of orders they receive to turn over data, and the number of users affected.

While there is disagreement over the bounds of surveillance, “all of us can agree that these programs demand more transparency,” Heller said. “The principles outlined in this bill to increase transparency for Americans and private companies would clear up a tremendous amount of confusion that exists with these programs.”

The measure has drawn strong support from Google, AOL, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and other technology firms. Google’s security director testified in favor of it.

It drew a more mixed reception from intelligence officials. They warned that parts of the Franken-Heller bill might be unworkable while other parts might undermine national security.

Much of it is consistent with efforts underway to declassify surveillance documents, said Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But other parts would be difficult if not impossible to carry out, he said.

For instance, the research it would take to identify how many intercepted communications involve Americans as opposed to foreign intelligence targets would diminish privacy rather than enhance it, he said.

“Operationally it would be very difficult without an extraordinary investment of resources and maybe not even then,” he said.

Further, publicly detailing the interception of communications company-by-company would provide terrorists with a road map as to which vendors to avoid if they want to escape scrutiny.

“This is an area where the details very much matter,” said Brad Weigmann, Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general.

Heller said he expects there will be more negotiations over the bill, and that it might end up being combined with others that have been introduced to reshape surveillance programs.

One of those is a bill Heller has sponsored with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to halt the bulk collection of telephone call records. He contends the authority is overly broad and the practice is not justified as a privacy matter when weighed against what he said were only two investigations completed using the information.

“We want input and that’s what this hearing was today,” Heller said. “We’re trying to find a balance where the public has a right to know and at the same time we want to make sure the country is safe.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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