WASHINGTON – The White House wants the National Security Agency to get out of the business of sweeping up and storing vast amounts of data on Americans’ phone calls. And a proposal to have the government seek information from phone companies’ existing records satisfies public concerns about privacy, President Barack Obama said Tuesday.
The Obama administration is expected this week to propose that Congress overhaul the electronic surveillance program to end the government’s practice of collecting the phone records of millions of Americans and holding them for five years so the data can be searched for national security purposes. Obama commented Tuesday in the Netherlands at the close of a summit on nuclear security.
The White House proposal is similar to legislation members of the House Intelligence Committee introduced Tuesday. Both Obama and the chairman of the intelligence committee have said the existing phone records collection program receives plenty of oversight and the data is secure. But the White House and House intelligence committee are responding to public concerns about the NSA counterterrorism program.
Details of the government’s secret phone records collection program were disclosed last year by former NSA contract systems analyst Edward Snowden.
“There’s a lot of mistrust” as a result of the Snowden disclosures, Chairman of the House intelligence committee Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said. And this new proposal addresses those concerns, he said.
The White House is expected to propose that the phone companies hold onto the records for 18 months, just as they are required to do now by federal regulation.
The president’s plan would require congressional action, something that has so far seemed unlikely. There are a number of competing bills about how to reform the phone records collection program. There are differences in opinions even within political parties about how to do this, however.
The bulk phone records collection program is set to expire next summer. If Congress can’t agree on changes before then, the program will end completely.
In January, Obama tasked his administration with coming up with an alternative to the current counterterrorism program 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 at the time. 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 program 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.
The administration’s proposed changes won’t happen right away. The government plans to continue its bulk collection program for at least three months, but probably longer because it’s unlikely Congress would pass legislation in such a short time period.
Under the administration’s pending legislative proposal, officials would have to obtain phone records by getting individual orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. This is has been happening, since Obama asked for the change in January.
Associated Press writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.