Senate panel sets deadline for NSA database deal

Effort comes at a time when the legality of the agency’s surveillance activities is under close scrutiny.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is pushing the National Security Agency to further open its databases of raw signals intelligence to a wider audience within the intelligence community. But the effort comes at a time when Congress, courts and the privacy community are closely scrutinizing the legality of the agency's surveillance activities.

The committee ordered the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency to arrive at an agreement by the end of August to extend access to NSA's databases to more DIA analysts.

"If the [memorandum of agreement] is not finished by this deadline, the committee will seek stronger measures in conference with the House on the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2007 to ensure timely completion," according to comments filed in a report with the committee's late May approval of the fiscal 2007 intelligence authorization bill.

Panel Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in the report that the committee is concerned that the intelligence community is not sharing enough raw information throughout its branches. The idea behind sharing such unprocessed information is that various branches of the intelligence community may be looking for specific information relevant to their investigations, according to the committee report.

The agreement on terms of access to the NSA databases should serve as a model for the terms of access to NSA and DIA databases for the wider intelligence community, said the committee report.

To better enable information sharing, the committee has inserted a provision in the bill establishing a pilot program that would exempt the intelligence community from privacy law -- if the information is relevant to "a lawful and authorized" foreign intelligence or counterintelligence program.

Additionally, the nation's intelligence director would have to authorize such sharing. The Privacy Act is a 1974 law mandating that government departments tell citizens what information they are collecting about them. It also says the information can be used only for stated purposes. The law contains exemptions for law enforcement, but not for the intelligence community.

Privacy advocates have expressed concern about these and other recommendations made by the Senate intelligence committee's fiscal 2007 authorization bill because they have not been publicly debated. The Center for National Security Studies has asked Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to hold public hearings on parts of the bill.

"The question is: What are the general rules here about the NSA sharing information about Americans' communications with other agencies?" said Kate Martin, director of the center. "That has been something that has been public in the past, and should be public now."

The provision exempting the intelligence community from the Privacy Act would allow the Defense Department to access FBI databases, Martin noted. Such access amounts to activity that current privacy law was meant to check, she said.

"What this is eliminating is one of the few existing legal protections against Total Information Awareness," she said, referring to a doomed Pentagon database citizen surveillance project that Congress nixed on a few years ago.