The Obama administration has called on Congress to move quickly to pass legislation that would achieve the president’s goal of ending government mass collection of Americans’ phone records.
“Having carefully considered the available options, I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk,” President Obama said in a statement Thursday, adding that “legislation will be needed.”
“We really hope that the Congress can act swiftly,” said a senior administration official, who spoke in a conference call with reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The official did not specify a timeline but noted that the administration was reauthorizing on Friday the current system of data collection by the National Security Agency for another 90 days, suggesting that that would be an appropriate window of time for lawmakers to act.
Obama said in a speech in January that he wanted to end the government’s gathering and storage of what officials say are hundreds of billions of records about Americans’ phone calls. Since the program was disclosed in June, it has prompted concern about the potential for abuse.
At the same time, Obama has said he believes the government needs to preserve a capability to seek clues to terrorist plots that officials say can be hidden in the records. That is why, the senior official suggested, the administration is not simply ending the mass collection now. Instead, the official said, it is seeking legislation to establish a “new program.”
Attention now shifts to Congress, which has before it several competing bills that seek varying degrees of change — some more ambitious than the White House’s. But Obama’s proposal has become the baseline, analysts said.
“The president’s plan is a major step in the right direction and a victory for privacy,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But this must be the beginning of surveillance reform, not the end.” Romero urged support for legislation that would end all forms of bulk collection, not just for phone records — as Obama’s proposal calls for.
The senior official laid out “key attributes” of legislation that Obama wants to see on his desk. They include the principles that:
●Except in emergencies, the government will receive records only with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approving the use of specific phone numbers for queries.
●Query results would be limited to two hops from the original number, and the data will be subject to privacy rules approved by the court.
●The records would remain with phone companies for the length of time they normally would keep them — there will be no mandate to hold them longer.
●The phone companies will return results on a continuous, ongoing basis.
●The companies will be compelled by court order to ensure that the results are returned in a usable format and timely manner.
Obama has already ordered some changes to the program — but he wants those made permanent through legislation. For instance, the surveillance court in February signed off on the two-hop limit and the requirement that every number queried be approved in advance by a judge as associated with a terrorist or a terrorist group.
A key lawmaker, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said this week that she thinks the president’s plan “is a worthy effort.” She said she will schedule a hearing to examine his proposal as well as a separate plan put forward by the bipartisan leadership of the House Intelligence Committee.
The bill introduced this week by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Vice Chairman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) differs from the president’s proposal in one key respect: It allows the government to seek court approval of a suspect’s phone number after it is sent to the phone company for querying.
“We were very pleased to see that [Rogers and Ruppersberger] agree with us that the government shouldn’t collect or hold the data,” the senior official said but made clear that judicial approval prior to querying is a requisite.
Concerns about NSA surveillance are broader than just the phone metadata program, which was revealed through a document leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Other documents he leaked described other programs carried out overseas that collect the data of foreigners and U.S. citizens under executive authority.
On Thursday, the U.N. Human Rights Committee released a report expressing concern about the NSA’s various surveillance activities. One concern is that the current oversight system “fails to effectively protect the rights of those affected,” the report stated. The committee welcomed a presidential directive issued in January extending some privacy protections to foreigners but remains concerned that the protections are “limited.”