James Clapper, the nation's top spy, said keeping logs of U.S. citizens' phone calls is a preventive measure for discerning potential threats. Any legislation that shifts collection from the government to private telecom companies – a move Clapper has said he supports -- could fail to stop a terrorist attack, he added.
The National Security Agency maintains phone records on domestic calls by Americans, according to leaks by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the government later confirmed.
Following public backlash, Clapper, who is the director of national intelligence, supported a failed 2014 bill, the USA FREEDOM Act, which would let communications providers store the phone records. The Obama administration already has changed executive branch rules to order that each log be destroyed after five years.
But Clapper said the phone companies likely would delete them sooner, undercutting the program.
“Every time we lose another tool in our toolkit, it raises the risk," he said Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "If that tool is taken away from us -- and some untoward incident happens which could have been thwarted had we had it, I just hope that everyone involved in that decision assumes responsibility and not be blamed if we have another failure exclusively on the intelligence community."
Clapper said he thinks telecom companies won’t be that enthused about holding on to data for the full five years.
"I think given the attitude today with the providers, they will probably do all they can to minimize the retention period, which from our standpoint lessens the utility of the data because you do need some -- and we can prove this statistically -- you do need some historical data, if you are going to discern a pattern,” he said.
It's better to have the call records on hand, in case they can help thwart a disaster, he said.
The policy, "to me, is much like my fire insurance policy. My house has never burned down, but every year, I buy fire insurance, just in case," Clapper said.
Since lawmakers have yet to mandate that NSA cede collection to the private sector, the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Thursday quietly renewed the surveillance program until June 1.
Spy-Operated Cyber Tip Hotline Doesn’t Have Grand Ambitions
Separately, Clapper justified what he said is a need for a spy-run cyber threat analysis center on top of the six-plus cyber information-sharing facilities already operating in government. But, Clapper added, the ambitions of the new Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, or CTIIC (pronounced See-Tick), are limited.
Obama last week ordered the creation of the agency, which will be modeled after the National Counterterrorism Center, an intelligence fusion center stood up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
It will join a crowd of other tip-swapping ventures, including the Department of Homeland Security's National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center; the Pentagon's Defense Industrial Base cybersecurity program; and DNI's own Information Sharing Environment.
Clapper likened the Cyber NCTC's purpose to the compilation of the president's daily brief. The center's analysis will represent "the inputs and views of the entire intelligence community," he said.
Clapper acknowledged there are some tensions within the existing information-sharing centers. "We're in the midst now of making a lot of parish calls, to all these groups, all of whom are concerned and threatened -- to try to allay concerns -- because the objectives here, I think, are pretty modest,” he said. "But I think we can make some value added contribution in terms of a better job."