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Who to trust, NSA or telecom giants?

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U.S. President Barack Obama last week outlined a plan to dramatically curb the National Security Agency’s massive phone call database. This is the once-secret cache of American phone call records (but not their content) revealed by NSA leaker in chief Edward Snowden.

The biggest news in the White House talking points: Telecommunications companies, not the government, would shoulder much more of the burden. The companies, not the NSA, would collect and hold the so-called metadata of phone call records. Unlike previous practice, federal officials couldn’t search the company databases at will. They’d need an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, except in perceived emergencies.

We’ve been wary about proposed changes to current protocol because of their potential to curb fast, efficient data mining in the real-time hunt for terrorist plots. But several influential lawmakers and former intelligence officials have given a tentative nod of approval to the White House approach, if not to its every detail. That group includes outgoing NSA Director Keith Alexander and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Still, there are significant sticking points. Chief among them: The telecom companies aren’t eager to store the data and field requests. "Companies should not be required to create, analyze or retain records for reasons other than business purposes," Randal Milch, Verizon’s executive vice president for public policy and general counsel, told The Wall Street Journal. Telecoms fear they’ll need to spend huge amounts to set up new databases, depending on government requirements on how data is formatted and how fast it must be accessible.

We’d also bet that no telecom executive relishes the intense congressional scrutiny of company procedures and competence that would follow another terrorist attack on American soil. Two words to strike terror into telecoms: Fall guy.

Another major question for Congress and Americans: Whom do you trust more to protect your privacy — the NSA or the telecoms — when it comes to handling an initial request for data? If phone companies hold the metadata, "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 asks. Excellent question. Let’s hear an excellent answer.

One more issue that demands scrutiny: Under a House proposal, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would issue a broad order authorizing the program annually, allowing the NSA to issue subpoenas for specific phone records without prior judicial approval. The White House has a stiff burden of proof to defend its position that the NSA would be just as effective if it had to seek a judge’s approval every time it seeks to investigate a phone’s traffic.

Obama has renewed the NSA program for an additional 90 days while Congress debates. Lawmakers must use that time to hash out a strong bipartisan bill that reassures Americans that their privacy is being protected — but also that the nation would not be left vulnerable to attack by an implacable enemy.

Yes, there are still misguided lawmakers who’d like to cripple if not eradicate the NSA program in the name of privacy.

We’d remind them of what Obama said in January:

"We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyberthreats without some capability to penetrate digital communications, whether it’s to unravel a terrorist plot, to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange, to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts. We are expected to protect the American people; that requires us to have capabilities in this field."

Congress, tread carefully on an NSA overhaul. The overarching goal for new legislation is the same as the NSA’s mission: Protect the American people.

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