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Rep. Jared Huffman wants major changes to the government's mass collection of telephone records, a recently revealed program he says may be trampling on the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches.

Judges who oversee the National Security Agency's telephone data collection program should be openly appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, Huffman said. Telephone companies — not the federal agency — should maintain the records.

"That's got to change," said Huffman, D-San Rafael, of the NSA's telephone dragnet, condemned by civil libertarians, liberal Democrats and some Republicans.

"I am absolutely outraged that the government knows who I call and who calls me," said Alice Chan of Sebastopol, an elected delegate to the California Democratic Central Committee.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, defended the controversial program, contending that national security and personal privacy are not "mutually exclusive."

The NSA program, which survived a House vote last month, has "prevented no less than 12 terrorist attacks targeting Americans on U.S. soil in recent years" without infringing "on anyone's constitutional rights," Thompson said.

The national uproar over the mining of phone records, prompting a response from President Barack Obama last week, followed revelations of the program in June by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor now living in Russia.

In early July, Chan publicly questioned why Huffman and Thompson, the North Coast's two Democratic congressmen, had made no public comment on the issue nor posted a statement on their websites.

"We need our elected representatives to provide leadership when our rights are in question," Chan wrote in an opinion page essay in The Press Democrat.

Huffman announced in a press release his July 24 vote for an amendment to curtail the NSA program, describing it as "indiscriminate surveillance of all Americans."

The amendment failed, 217-205, with 27 California Democrats voting for it and eight opposed, including Thompson and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

Four out of 14 California Republicans voted for the measure. Overall, 111 House Democrats and 94 Republicans voted to halt the program.

Two days later, Pelosi, Huffman, Thompson and 151 other House Democrats sent a letter to Obama acknowledging their split vote but saying they shared "lingering questions and concerns," including:

Whether the bulk telephone data collection program "sufficiently protects the privacy and civil liberties of Americans" and whether it could be "tailored more narrowly" to do so.

The need to "ensure greater transparency" in the structure and operation of the secret court that oversees the program.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a legal challenge to the program, alleging it violates the First and Fourth Amendments and exceeds the authority granted to the government under the Patriot Act.

"This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens," said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, in a written statement.

Chan, who is chairwoman of the Sonoma County chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, acknowledged a question of "how much secrecy do we have to have to make ourselves safe in our homes?"

Her answer is that telephone data should not be collected until authorities obtain a warrant for a specific person through a public court.

Thompson, an eight-term House veteran, defended his vote to sustain the NSA's sweeping collection of phone records.

"I don't think you pull the plug on a program of this importance after 20 minutes of debate," he said.

Thompson said he is willing to consider steps to make the program more transparent, a goal Obama endorsed last week.

But Thompson said that transparency "is a pretty high hurdle" in matters of intelligence gathering. "You can't disclose your methods or your sources," he said, adding that the court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Service Act, known as FISA, could not operate openly.

"I don't know how it could work," he said.

Thompson declined to cite any changes that should be made, saying the program "has to be looked at comprehensively."

Huffman, who joined Congress in January, said he is a co-sponsor of two bills by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, including one that would require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation of the 11 judges on the FISA court, which reviews the government's surveillance requests.

The judges are now appointed by the Supreme Court chief justice and 10 if them were initially named as federal judges by Republican presidents.

Schiff's other bill would require the attorney general to disclose "significant" opinions of the FISA court, and Huffman said his colleague is working on a measure that would require telecom companies — not the government — to maintain telephone records.

That information, known as metadata, includes the telephone numbers dialed and the time, date and duration of calls, according to a report issued Friday by the White House.

"The government cannot, through this program, listen to or record any telephone conversations," it said.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco said the telephone database was accessed fewer than 300 times last year, resulting in 12 reports to the FBI for further investigation.

Feinstein, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have said their panels will conduct a review of the NSA program this fall.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.