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Spies close in on plan to share NSA data despite privacy worries

The intelligence community is close to completing a plan to let the National Security Agency share more of the raw data it collects with other U.S. spy agencies, a system that would put an end to more than a decade of wrangling among the different organizations.

"The procedures respond to the widely recognized lesson learned from the 9/11 attacks that intelligence should not be 'stovepiped,'" said Timothy Barrett, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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Analysts at the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency have long wanted access to communications collected by the NSA, which is headquartered at Fort Meade. President George W. Bush signed an order paving the way for the change in 2008. But former NSA deputy director John C. Inglis said it's not as easy as just throwing open the doors to the agency's vast databases.

Information that the NSA collects — known as signals intelligence, or SIGINT — does not arrive at the agency in a neat, easy-to-read form. Inglis said considerable skill goes into cleaning it up, a key step between the two core disciplines of intelligence collection: acquiring information and analyzing it.

"It's not trivial to work your way through a pile of SIGINT material," he said. "There's some degree of expertise that's required."

A key question has been whether other agencies would have the trained staff to effectively make use of the raw information, Inglis said. Still, he's supportive of the effort. He said a blend of inertia and caution has made progress slow.

The proposed changes, which will require the approval of the director of national intelligence, the secretary of defense and the attorney general to take effect, also face another hurdle. After the New York Times reported that the draft was nearing completion in February, privacy activists questioned whether information about Americans collected without a warrant would be turned over to the FBI and other agencies.

While the legal document that authorizes the NSA's overseas efforts focuses on foreign intelligence, the agency can end up collecting information about Americans, either because of the way traffic travels across the Internet or because an American is talking to an intelligence target.

Part of the NSA's job is to remove references to Americans before passing information along. The proposed procedures would not require that step.

Reps. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, and Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, wrote to NSA director Michael S. Rogers questioning whether the change would be constitutional.

"We respectfully request you confirm whether the NSA intends to routinely provide intelligence information — collected without a warrant — to domestic law enforcement agencies," they wrote. "If the NSA intends to go down this uncharted path, we request that you stop."

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which coordinates between spying agencies, has been working this week to assuage those concerns. The office wrote back to Lieu and Farenthold, and Robert S. Litt, its general counsel, wrote a post for a blog closely read by privacy activists spelling out that any information shared will not be available for law enforcement purposes.

"The same kind of protections for individual privacy that exists for signals intelligence today will carry forward when that signals intelligence is shared," Litt wrote. His office plans to make the rules public once they have been completed.

In an interview, Farenthold said the assurances seem to put the plan on sounder footing, but said there will need to be close oversight from Congress.

"The potential for abuse in this is high," he said.

Lieu said the details of the procedures will matter and questioned the timing of the change.

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"I find it bizarre that this rule change is happening now in 2016," he said. "After 9/11 one of the major arguments was you had stovepiping and we weren't sharing data and you would have assumed that would have been fixed a long time ago."

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