WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. spy agencies went too far when they built a massive database of all daily telephone call records and may have jeopardized political support for the very law they relied on to create it, members of Congress said on Wednesday.
Lawmakers said at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee that they doubted the legal provision had the votes to win renewal before it is set to expire in June 2015.
The warning was the latest evidence of a backlash against U.S. surveillance programs disclosed in the Guardian and the Washington Post last month from information the newspapers were given by former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
One of those programs is a database of telephone "metadata," including numbers called and the length and time of calls, going back seven years. U.S. officials said they had used the database only in limited circumstances and that it had proven essential to stopping attacks against civilians.
The database included records about every phone call in the United States, not just those calls involving surveillance targets, lawmakers said.
A surveillance court allowed the data collection based on a legal provision known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was first enacted in October 2001 and authorizes the FBI, with court approval, to seize tangible business records that are relevant to a terrorism investigation.
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin who was an author of the Patriot Act, said government lawyers had stretched the meaning of the legal provision beyond what he and other lawmakers had supported.
"You have to change how you operate," Sensenbrenner told government officials who were testifying at the hearing. He added that otherwise, "you're not going to have it any more."
Other lawmakers said they agreed the law as written did not support the bulk collection of Americans' phone data.
"If the government cannot provide a clear, public explanation for how its program is consistent with the statute, then it must stop collecting this information immediately," said Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California said, "This will not be maintained."
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the data collection was lawful because the government ignores the vast majority of phone records it has, looking only at those that it can prove to a court are tied directly to a terrorism suspect.
"The collection is only there and it is only valuable if it is used," Cole said.
Without the government database, he added, some records would disappear in as few as 15 months because telephone companies do not save the records.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that call records in the possession of a telephone company are not entitled to privacy protection, although the case related to a single criminal investigation and not bulk records.
In 2012, analysts scrutinized fewer than 300 specific phone numbers among the millions of raw records collected by the National Security Agency, the government said last month.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said he believed the mere collection was illegal.
"If you're collecting information about my telephone when you shouldn't be doing that, that is an abuse, even if you file it and never use it," he said.
Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Jackie Frank