Udall's Priority On NSA: 'The Freedom To Be Left Alone'

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He's long pushed for reforming the National Security Agency's surveillance practices, and he met with President Obama Thursday to discuss his proposals. Audie Cornish speaks with Sen. Udall about the meeting.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To better understand the proposals for reforming NSA data-gathering, we turn to someone who was in the White House meeting today. Senator Mark Udall is a Democrat from Colorado and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He's been a long time vocal opponent of the NSA's surveillance tactics. He says he urged President Obama to follow the recommendations of the president's own taskforce on the subject.

SENATOR MARK UDALL: What I would like to do is take what's known as the 215 program and keep it in place, but keep it in place in a much more limited and transparent manner. Right now...

CORNISH: And this is the bulk phone records collection program?

UDALL: This is the bulk phone records. Right now, the phone companies keep all those records. We agree to them keeping those records as customers. When we need that data on a very focused basis, then we could go - and when I say we, the government can go to the phone companies and generate that data when necessary.

But the dragnet operation that we have under way that results in a haystack that's bigger than you can imagine, I think breaks faith with the American people, it's a violation of our privacy and, as importantly, has not shown itself to be particularly effective. And the president's panel made that case in their report.

CORNISH: Now, there have been critics of this particular reform who say you're simply having private companies now hold onto massive amounts of data and isn't the goal to prevent them from doing that?

UDALL: The telephone companies today hold that data. They own that data. They use it for business purposes. So this is already in place. The idea that the government is collecting also all of this data, holding it in its own way, to me, is not only inefficient and ineffective, but it's also a violation of our privacy.

CORNISH: But between Congress and the White House, what direction are lawmakers headed in? I mean, are they really doing any fundamental shifts here or are they, in a sense, codifying a program that exists?

UDALL: We have been on track to codify a program that already exists. That's not acceptable to me. It's not acceptable to Coloradans. We shouldn't codify a program that violates Americans' privacy, raises questions about the Fourth Amendment and is, in the end, not proven to be effective. The 215 bulk collection has not produced uniquely valuable intelligence.

CORNISH: Senator, I'm getting a sense from you of what you think should happen, but I'm not getting a sense of what you see happening. I mean, given your experience with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has rebuffed amendments that you've put forward, given your meetings with the White House, do you see any of these reform proposals that would justify to you the continued existence of these massive data collections?

UDALL: Yeah, I'm going to keep pushing, Audie, the momentum is on the side of us who believe that there is an overreach in what's been happening. There is a way to do this that respects our privacy and also keeps us safe. I'm going to keep pushing and the president's panel laid out the case that I've been laying out for the last two and a half years.

CORNISH: But have you abandoned the push to end bulk collection altogether?

UDALL: No. In fact, I'm not only not abandoning it, I'm continuing to push to end bulk collection and I hope the president listens to his own panel, to the American people and to those of us in the Congress who want to work with him.

CORNISH: Beyond phone records, there's also a massive program called Marina to collect and store other metadata, people's online activities, Web browsing history, email and so on. Is that being addressed in the same way as phone records in terms of reforms?

UDALL: We're not addressing that in our conversations today. I would tell you that, to be fair, we need a broad societal conversation about privacy. We need to be clear about the ways in which the private sector accesses our personal information, but as a United States senator, I think it's incumbent on me to look particularly at what the U.S. government does and when you have a program like 215, it just seems to me it's commonsense based in the program in the ways that I've been promoting for many years now.

CORNISH: Senator Udall, at this point, what are the sticking points?

UDALL: The sticking points are that there are still some in the Congress who believe that the bulk collection makes us safer and does not violate the privacy of Americans. There is almost equal number of us now who believe that bulk collection is unnecessary. It violates Americans' privacy and may well be unconstitutional.

If you think about freedom, Audie, one of the key freedoms is the freedom to be left alone and that's really at the heart of what the concept of privacy is and means to many, if not all, Americans, the freedom to be left alone. And when your phone records are being collected without your knowledge on a daily basis after a while those phone records, although a set of numbers and times and the like, provide a pretty clear roadmap as to what you're doing.

And I think that so-called metadata becomes a form of content and that is objectionable to many Americans. That is a direct violation of Americans' privacy.

CORNISH: That's Senator Mark Udall, Democrat from Colorado. Thank you so much for coming on the program.

UDALL: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: The outgoing deputy director of the NSA tells NPR that he still defends the 215 program as a way to prevent terrorism.

JOHN INGLIS: I think we as a nation have to ask ourselves the policy question of what risk do we want to cover. Do we want to cover 100 percent of the risk or do we want to perhaps take a risk that from time to time something will get through.

CORNISH: The NSA's John Inglis makes that case to Steve Inskeep. You can hear their conversation tomorrow on NPR's MORNING EDITION.

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