WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is expected to propose in the coming days that the National Security Agency should no longer collect or hold vast amounts of data of Americans’ phone calls.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the administration is expected to propose that Congress overhaul the electronic surveillance programme by having phone companies hold onto the call records as they do now, according to a government official briefed on the proposal.
The reported proposal would require only that phone companies only keep the records for the 18 months currently required by federal law and allow the government to see certain records when the request is approved by a federal judge. Currently, the government holds onto those phone records for five years so the numbers can be searched for national security purposes.
A senior administration official said President Barack Obama would present “a sound approach to ensuring the government no longer collects or holds this data, but still ensures that the government has access to the information it needs to meet the national security needs his team has identified.” The official also said that until the legislation is passed by Congress “the president has directed his administration to renew the current programme, as modified substantially by the president in his January speech.”
In January, President Obama tasked his administration with coming up with an alternative to the current counterterrorism programme and suggested that the phone companies option was the most likely. However, he also said that option posed problems.
“This will not be simple,” Obama said. An independent review panel suggested that the practice of the government collecting the phone records be replaced by a third party or the phone companies holding the records, and the government would access them as needed.
“Both of these options pose difficult problems,” Obama said in January. Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns. And the phone companies have been against this option, as well.
In several meetings with White House staff since December, phone company executives came out strongly opposed to proposals that would shift the custody of the records from the NSA to the telecoms. The executives said they would only accept such changes to the NSA programme if they were legally required and if that requirement was spelled out in legislation.
The companies are concerned about the costs of retaining the records and potential liability, such as being sued by individuals whose phone data was provided to intelligence or law enforcement agencies, these people said. The discussions with the White House ceased earlier this year. Industry officials said they had not been in contact with the administration as new options were being considered. The executives have continued to discuss the issue with lawmakers, however.
Details of the government’s secret phone records collection programme were disclosed last year by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, outraging privacy advocates and forcing Obama to promise that changes would be made. But the White House’s proposed changes won’t happen right away. The government plans to continue its bulk collection programme for at least three months, the Times said.
The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, has advocated for the programme to continue to operate as it does. The California Democrat said she would be open to other options if they met national security and privacy needs.