Obama says new NSA proposal alleviates privacy concerns about surveillance

President Obama says he's working with Congress to pass legislation that addresses "some of the concerns" with the National Security Agency's data collection processes. (WhiteHouse.gov)

President Obama on Tuesday said he believes the plan his administration has given him to address concerns about the National Security Agency’s widespread collection of Americans’ phone data is “workable,” and he hopes Congress will move to enact it.

Speaking at a nuclear summit in The Hague, Obama said the plan should alleviate “core concerns” about the government storing massive amounts of data on Americans’ phone calls.

The White House is preparing a proposal that would end the government’s “bulk collection” of such data while, Obama said, preserving its ability to gain information about terrorists who might be plotting an attack against the United States.

The plan, senior officials said, would allow data about phone calls made to and from Americans to be kept with the phone companies. The companies would not be required to hold the data longer than they normally would.

Obama stressed that the plan would ensure that “a judge is looking at each individual” phone number to ensure it is linked to a suspected terrorist organization before phone companies are asked to search their records for data about the number. Such prior judicial approval of queries is considered a key requisite by privacy advocates.

Obama in January gave his subordinates until March 28 — this Friday — to find a way to end the government’s mass collection of phone data, a program that has stirred controversy since it was revealed through a leak to the news media in June.

The proposal, which is still being finalized, would require phone companies to make data available on a real-time, ongoing basis — an idea embraced by NSA leaders, officials said.

Officials said the administration has decided to renew the current program for at least one more 90-day cycle. The current orders expire Friday. Under the program, the government collects telephone numbers and call times and dates but not call content.

The administration effort comes as the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee have drafted a bipartisan bill that would also end the NSA’s mass gathering of data. Their measure would also keep the records at the phone companies.

But some privacy advocates are already expressing opposition to the proposal.

The House bill would reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to make clear that the government can no longer collect any form of electronic communication in bulk, said its sponsors, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the committee’s chairman, and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), its ranking Democrat.

“We believe this can be the solution for those of us who want to preserve important national security capabilities while heeding the legitimate concerns of many that the collection of bulk telephone metadata has a potential for abuse,” said Rogers, who has staunchly defended the NSA’s bulk-collection authority.

Ruppersberger, whose district includes the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters, said, “The most important thing is getting the public’s confidence that their government is out there protecting them against terrorist attacks” while respecting privacy and increasing transparency.

The bill, according to congressional aides, would bar the mass collection of different types of information, including phone call records and records of Internet activity. It also covers location information, aides said.

It, too, would not require telecommunication companies to retain data for longer than they do now. And it would require that the government serve a directive on a company that is being asked for data.

But unlike other pending legislation, it does not call for judicial approval of a specific phone number before a request for data is submitted to a company.

The Rogers-Ruppersberger legislation would have the court make that determination “promptly” after the FBI submits a number to a phone company. If the court did not approve the number as being linked to an agent of a foreign power, including terrorist groups, the data collected would be expunged.

“If there is no judicial authorization beforehand, I don’t see the civil liberties community getting behind it,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who has co-sponsored competing legislation, said the Rogers-Ruppersberger bill “limits, but does not end, bulk collection.” He said that provisions in the draft “fall well short” of the safeguards in his bill.

Both the administration’s and the House lawmakers’ proposals would allow data up to two “hops” from a target to be collected.

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