Report: Obama to call for major NSA changes

President Obama wants to end the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of records about Americans’ phone calls, according to the New York Times.

The newspaper reported late on Monday that Obama’s planned legislative proposal, expected to be announced in coming days, would move the controversial phone records database out of the spy agency’s hands. Instead, the records would remain with the phone companies, and government agents would be able to obtain information about specific phone numbers with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

ADVERTISEMENT
The plan would reportedly not require phone companies to keep the records beyond the 18 months that federal rules already require. Telecommunications companies and privacy advocates have resisted the suggestion of a mandate to hold records for up to five years, as the NSA currently does.

A senior administration official told The Hill in an emailed statement that the president is planning to “put forward 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.”

A White House spokesman declined comment Monday on the reported plans.

The NSA’s phone records collection program, which gathers details about the numbers dialed, length and frequency of people’s calls but not the content of their conversations, was the most controversial program revealed in documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Since the program came to light last summer, civil liberties groups and lawmakers from both parties have called for an overhaul to limit the government’s ability to snoop on Americans.

Defenders of the program in Congress and the administration have said that it has been critical in combatting terrorism.

In January, Obama outlined a handful of reforms to the NSA, including limits to agents' ability to search the records and new civil liberties protections on the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes the NSA programs. He also ordered Attorney General Eric Holder and top intelligence agency leaders to develop additional reforms by March 28, when the phone metadata program will come up for reauthorization by the surveillance court.

Until those new reforms are passed by Congress, Obama has directed the administration to renew the existing program, the senior administration official said.

The report about Obama’s planned reforms to the NSA comes hours before leaders of the House Intelligence Committee are scheduled to unveil legislation of their own to reform the NSA.

Like the White House plan, the proposal from committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, is expected to call for the phone data to remain in phone companies’ hands. The two are scheduled to unveil their legislation Tuesday morning. 

--This report was updated on Tuesday at 6:51 a.m.