By Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new, more limited system for monitoring Americans' phone calls for signs of terrorist intent is so slow and cumbersome that the U.S. National Security Agency will likely never use it, a senior Senate Republican said.
Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, opposed the new system when it was mandated earlier this year. He said this week he was not concerned by how the NSA will transition to it because it will probably not be used.
The NSA, which spies on electronic communications worldwide, is weeks away from ending its former indiscriminate vacuuming of information about Americans' phone calls, or metadata, and replacing it with a more targeted system.
Burr made his comments as lawmakers and Obama administration officials continue to disagree about the new approach to call monitoring, set to take effect on Nov. 29 under a law that overhauled domestic surveillance practices. It will replace a system exposed publicly more than two years ago by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and denounced by civil liberties advocates as overly intrusive.
The new system cannot be relied upon for national security purposes, Burr said in an interview on Tuesday.
"I'm not concerned with the rollout (of the new system) because I'm resigned to the fact that metadata will never be used again," added Burr, a Republican security hawk.
He said he would have preferred to let the NSA continue its data grabs unfettered, adding that discontinuing the metadata program represents "a loss in the arsenal we have to identify terrorists."
Asked about Burr's comments, White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price replied that the USA Freedom Act, enacted in June, "struck a reasonable compromise which allows us to continue to protect the country while implementing various reforms."
A presidential review panel appointed by President Barack Obama found that while the now-abandoned metadata collection program may have assisted in terrorism-related investigations, it did not lead to a single clear counterterrorism breakthrough that could be directly attributed to the program.
The NSA declined to comment on Burr's remarks.
Under the new procedures, the government – NSA and law enforcement agencies – will only be able to obtain, with court authorization, telephone calling data of particular individuals or groups of individuals available through routine billing records maintained by telecommunications companies. The companies themselves will not be required to maintain such data in any particular format or for any specific period of time.
Under the previous law, the NSA itself collected and stored large volumes of telephone calling data from U.S. telecommunications companies and NSA spies were allowed to query it extensively, including charting an individual suspect's network of phone contacts, without a court warrant.
SLOWER TO 'CONNECT THE DOTS'
Some officials have raised concern about the effectiveness of the new system, although there is little indication that the NSA plans to forgo its use entirely.
NSA Director Mike Rogers told Burr's committee in late September that his agency would lose some operational capabilities without bulk collection. Additionally, Rogers said he could issue emergency orders to query phone data less than 24 hours after being alerted of potential terrorist activity. Such orders will now have to come from the U.S. attorney general, Rogers said, so it could take longer to "connect the dots" in an investigation.
Others in the intelligence community disagreed.
FBI Director James Comey told a congressional panel last month that the new surveillance program was likely to produce more useful intelligence for counterterrorism operations.
Jasper Graham, a former NSA technical director and now chief technology officer at cyber security company Darktrace, said it was extremely unlikely that spies would no longer rely on phone metadata under the new program.
"All of it is useful information ... even if it is tremendously burdensome and cumbersome," Graham said. But a slower process could raise challenges, he added, because "there is definitely something to be said about timing being of the essence."
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Frances Kerry)