By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers warned on Tuesday that time is running out to make specific reforms to the National Security Agency's telephone surveillance program and promised Congress would act if the Obama administration does not.
The House Judiciary Committee examined recommendations for reforms to the U.S. government's electronic spying programs after revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden outraged American privacy advocates and strained relations with U.S. allies.
Members of the committee focused on the most sweeping of the spy programs, the bulk collection of telephone records, criticizing its broad reach and calling for stronger limits.
"It's a vacuum cleaner," said U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin. "And that's why there has been such outrage both here and overseas."
Sensenbrenner said Section 215, the portion of the USA Patriot Act under which the so-called metadata telephone program is operated, is due to expire in June 2015.
"There hasn't been anything else that's come from the administration and elsewhere to deal with this issue and the clock, sir, is ticking and it is ticking rapidly," he said.
Sensenbrenner asked Deputy Attorney General James Cole whether the Justice Department supported the bipartisan legislation he co-sponsored, the USA Freedom Act, which has been endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The Department of Justice is a big place, senator, and at this point we have not taken a position on the Freedom Act," Cole replied.
The "USA Freedom Act" is one of several pieces of legislation seeking to curb the NSA's surveillance powers making their way through Congress. It would eliminate bulk metadata collection by the NSA entirely.
Sensenbrenner was a primary author of the Patriot Act, enacted after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"Congress never did intend to allow bulk collection when it passed Section 215 and no fair reading of the text would allow for this program," he said.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, seconded his Republican colleague's comments and said it was critical to reform the program quickly.
NSA = FOUR-LETTER WORD
President Barack Obama announced limited reforms last month to rein in the vast collection of Americans' phone data in a speech in which he banned U.S. eavesdropping on leaders of friendly or allied nations.
One of the biggest changes was an overhaul of the government's handling of bulk telephone "metadata" - lists of millions of phone calls made by Americans that show which numbers were called and when.
Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. intelligence community to report back to him before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28 on how to preserve the necessary capabilities of the program, without the government holding the metadata.
But Cole and representatives from the two panels that made recommendations to the president on the spying programs did not offer details on how a third party, or the telephone companies themselves, could store such a trove of data.
"We're also trying to think outside the box and see if there are any other options that we can come up with," Cole told the committee.
Committee members from both parties expressed concerns about transferring storage of the metadata to private companies or third parties.
Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said transferring the metadata's storage to private companies could raise more privacy concerns than it solves.
"We need look no further than last month's Target breach or last week's Yahoo breach to know that private information held by private companies is susceptible to cyberattacks," Goodlatte, the committee chairman, said in his opening statement, referring to two recent, high-profile hacking incidents.
He complained that Obama did not clearly articulate why the information provided by the program was so valuable in thwarting terrorism plots.
Representative Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia, cited a more daunting challenge for the U.S. government.
"The problem is trust. In my district and in many others, NSA has become not a three-letter word but a four-letter word ... How do we restore that?" he asked Cole.
Snowden's revelations have forced the Obama administration to reconcile privacy rights with national security concerns about programs classified by multiple American administrations.
"These are tough balances. You're not going to do it overnight," Cole testified. "So we have to find that balance and I wish it was easier, but it's not."
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Karey Van Hall, G Crosse)