The senator who might know the most about telecommunications companies doesn't want them serving as stewards of Americans' phone records.
Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., made that clear in a lengthy statement delivered during the first round of questioning at Tuesday's Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats featuring testimony from Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and other top security officials.
"I have served on the Commerce Committee for 30 years and know that telephone companies sometimes make empty promises about consumer protection and transparency," Rockefeller said. "Corporations core profit motives can, and sometimes have, trumped their holding to their own public commitments."
Rockefeller said that he didn't foresee a better alternative to the current practice of having the government hold the metadata.
"My concerns about private providers retaining this data for national security purposes are only heightened by the advent of the multibillion-dollar data broker industry that mines troves of data — including telephone numbers — which it uses to determine our most personal inclinations," Rockefeller said. "Further involving the telecom providers in the extended storage of this data for intelligence purposes would not only make that data subject to discovery in civil lawsuits, but it would also make it more vulnerable to theft by hackers or foreign intelligence organizations. Another powerful reason to be against private companies taking responsibility for an inherently governmental function."
President Barack Obama has called for changing the way the telephone metadata is handled pursuant to Section 215 of the Patriot Act — and wants legislation that would take it out of direct government ownership.
Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signaled agreement with Rockefeller's point of view, but her panel has what have become typical sharp divisions between two groups of members on civil liberties issues.
For instance, Sen. Ron Wyden had a series of tough questions that the intelligence officials in attendance would only assure the Oregon Democrat that they would answer soon.
"Declassified court documents show that in 2011, the NSA sought and obtained the authority to go through communications collected with respect to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act and conduct warrantless searches for the communications of specific Americans," Wyden explained, before asking Clapper, "Can you tell us today whether any searches have ever been conducted?"
"There are very complex legal issues here that I just don't think this is the appropriate time to discuss them," Clapper replied.
Wyden said he had faced a year of stonewalling, and he pressed for an unclassified response, which Clapper said he would provide within 30 days.
A similar exchange followed with CIA Director John Brennan. Wyden asked: "does the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act apply to the CIA?"
Brennan said he should be able to answer that query within a week, after researching the reach of the law.
Little of this debate would probably be in public view without the theft and release of classified information by former contractor Edward Snowden . Clapper affirmed that Snowden must still have materials that haven't been released.
"Snowden claims that he's won and that his mission is accomplished," Clapper told the committee. "If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed."