Intelligence panel seeks limits on NSA

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New legislation offered by leaders on the House Intelligence Committee would prevent the government from collecting and storing phone records or any other types of bulk electronic communications without a warrant.

The House bill would require phone companies to continue to retain records, but not beyond the 18 months allowed under current law. The National Security Agency currently holds onto the phone data for five years, and civil liberties advocates and telecoms firms alike had opposed any new mandate on companies.

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The bill does not require a court order before agents can search for records about a specific phone number. Instead, it would have the court approve procedures to collect the records and have a “prompt review” after federal agents grab the records. Those that it found were improperly collected would be expunged.

The bill from Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and ranking Democratic Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) comes as the White House prepares to offer its own answers to criticism of NSA programs unveiled by former government contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks.

“We think that we have found a way to end the government’s bulk collection of telephone metadata and still provide a mechanism to protect the Untied States and track those terrorists who are calling into the United States to commit acts of terror,” Rogers said at a press conference unveiling the bill.

The White House proposal will not be formally offered in the coming days, but The New York Times reported details late on Monday evening, including that President Obama will seek to have phone companies — and not the government — hold on to phone records.

The NSA program collects details about the numbers people dial as well as the frequency and duration of their calls, but not the content of people’s conversations.

The debate over the NSA’s activities has divided both parties.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act and a vocal critic of the existing program, called the Intelligence bill “convoluted” and warned it would not end bulk collection of people’s phone records.

In a statement, he said the provisions “do not strike the proper balance between privacy and security.”

Sensenbrenner has introduced legislation that would end the government’s bulk collection of data. His bill has won the support of more than 140 House lawmakers, but has stalled in committee.

Ruppersberger on Tuesday said that Sensenbrenner’s bill “makes our country less safe” by overly restricting searches of records about people’s phone calls, known as metadata.

Obama called for reforms to the NSA’s controversial phone records program in a January speech, and has ordered Attorney General Eric Holder and top intelligence agency heads to develop a path forward by this Friday, when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will need to reauthorize the program.

Like the House bill, the White House’s planned legislation would reportedly also shift the database of records about people’s phone calls from the NSA to the phone companies. Unlike the House bill, government officials would be able to obtain records about a specific phone number with a specific court order. 

Critics of the controversial program worry that the Obama administration's plan doesn't go far enough.

“The significance of the plan really depends on the details, which have not yet fully been made public, but I applaud this effort to rationalize and restrict the excessively broad collection of personal data,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The Hill.

The administration’s effort would need congressional approval to become law.

Until Congress acts, the White House will ask the intelligence court to renew the program as it currently exists, a senior administration official said.

Rogers said he had only learned of the White House proposal through newspaper reports, but that it seems “they’re coming closer to our position here.”

Rogers said that he and Ruppersberger had met with top White House officials on Monday and chatted with the leaders of the Senate Intelligence panel earlier on Tuesday.

“We’re feeling pretty good about people starting to coalesce around a solution — no longer can we be all for it or all against it,” he said. “It’s unproductive and I do believe it creates an absolute misperception about what is exactly happening.”

The multiple parallel efforts could help move the process along, some proponents of reforming the NSA said.

“It’s the opening part of an ongoing process that will continue, I think, in both the House and the Senate over the next couple of months,” said one tech industry lobbyist who added that it opens up a discussion on what can and can’t be done.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the phone records collection program and is set to expire next summer. It seems unlikely that Congress has the votes to renew the legal authority unless some type of major reform is implemented to address critics’ concerns.

—Kate Tummarello contributed to this story.