Intel panel seeks to end NSA data storage

Lauren Schneiderman

The Obama administration and top lawmakers on Tuesday took steps to rein in the National Security Agency’s telephone surveillance program.

Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee unveiled legislation that would end the NSA’s bulk collection and storage of telephone metadata but would allow the government to get the same information from telephone companies with a warrant.

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Separately, the administration signaled support for similar reforms. 

The moves will not end the debate over the contested program, and the new bill is just one of many aiming to reform the spy agency, but the twin efforts are a sign that Washington is coalescing to create a path forward.

“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,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said on Tuesday.

Both the House Intel bill and the administration’s reported reforms would require phone companies to continue to retain records, but not beyond the 18 months allowed under law. The NSA currently holds onto the phone data for five years, and civil liberties advocates and telecoms firms alike had opposed any new mandate on companies.

The bill from Rogers and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, would 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 found to have been improperly collected would be expunged.

Civil libertarians said the lack of a requirement that officials obtain a court order before searching records could be a deal-breaker for them.

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.

The White House has yet to offer its proposal, but a New York Times report on Monday night said it would require government officials to get a court order to obtain records connected to a specific phone number.

Obama, speaking at a press conference in the Netherlands, said he was confident it would offer protections from terrorism “in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people had raised.”

The Obama administration’s plan was met favorably by supporters of reform in Washington, who said it amounted to a victory for their position.

“For years and years the executive branch denied that this was a problem. And the three of us, and millions of Americans, said not so fast,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who spoke with reporters alongside Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), all of whom have been critics of the NSA.

“And what the White House has said in the last 24 hours is they now agree with us and the American people.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has backed more modest NSA reforms, also offered support for the House bill.

“I have said before that I am open to reforming the call records program as long as any changes meet our national security needs and address privacy concerns, and that any changes continue to provide the government with the means to protect against future terrorist attacks,” she said in a statement.

Others worried that the administration was only agreeing to limitations on phone records, not other information the NSA collects.

“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 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.

Obama called for reforms to the NSA’s controversial phone records program in January, and 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.

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.

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.

Kate Tummarello and Jeremy Herb contributed.