FALMOUTH – Maine’s U.S. Sen. Susan Collins defended the National Security Agency’s phone data collection program Friday, saying the effort has stopped terrorist attacks and can operate without violating Americans’ privacy and constitutional rights.

Speaking at the Portland Country Club to about 80 members of the World Affairs Council of Maine, the Republican said the Obama administration should release at least the number of terrorist attacks disrupted by the program, in which the NSA collected information on the phone calls and emails of millions of Americans.

“It has defeated and thwarted dozens and dozens of terror plots both here and overseas,” said Collins, who has been a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee since January.

The president, she said, “should tell the American public just how many plots have been thwarted, at least in part, because of this program.”

Collins said information about programs like the phone data collection — which was leaked by a man working for an NSA contractor — should be more widely shared in Congress.

She said she wasn’t told about the existence of the program until after documents confirming the data collection were leaked, and said access to such classified information is limited to a few dozen lawmakers.

Collins noted that the program collected information on phone numbers that were called and the time conversations lasted, but did not involve wiretaps so the conversations were not recorded.

She said the information was tightly held within the NSA, and only a few security analysts had access to the data.

Collins said she doesn’t see such programs as inconsistent with people’s rights.

“We should not assume a trade-off between liberty and security,” she said. “Security ensures our freedom.”

Still, Collins said she understands that many Americans are bothered by the program. She said it — along with disclosures of the Internal Revenue Service giving extra scrutiny to the tax-exempt status of conservative political groups and questions about last year’s attack on an American consulate in Libya — has shaken people’s belief in government.

“The loss of faith in government is pervasive and, in some ways, deserved,” Collins said.

Collins’ comments about the NSA program came after she told the group about her efforts — stymied so far — to beef up protection for U.S. companies and government agencies against cyberattacks — computer hacking that leads to the theft of trade secrets, money and government information.

Collins and former Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut introduced a bill last year that would have required many companies and government agencies to increase the security of vital computer systems.

She said Friday that the bill got caught up in the partisan “gridlock” of an election year and went nowhere.

She said the hacking continues daily and costs the economy billions of dollars and millions of jobs.

Cyberterrorists “strike at our country every single day, and that is the challenge of nearly constant cyberattacks,” Collins said. “Our vulnerability is so great and our preparedness so inadequate.”

She offered examples, including one episode in which someone obtained information from the Army Corps of Engineers on more than 8,000 dams, potentially exposing their vulnerabilities, and another in which hackers gained information on U.S. weapons systems.

Collins said most cyberattacks originate from China, followed by Russia and Iran — which, she said, is rapidly increasing its ability to attack U.S. computer systems.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said Friday that the House Veterans Affairs Committee will step up oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs in response to a computer breach that may have compromised the personal information of 20 million American veterans.

Collins said she may reintroduce a slightly more limited version of her legislation to the Intelligence Committee later this year.

 

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com