By Julian Hattem - 03/27/14 09:57 AM EDT
The White House on Thursday offered support for legislation to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection and storage of phone records.
The proposal would have phone companies hold on to telephone “metadata” and give the NSA the authority to look at information on a specific phone number with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
What precisely that would mean would need to be developed with Congress, a senior administration official said, but could require a signed order from a “high-level government official” certifying that there was not enough time to get a court order, along with a judicial review after the fact.
President Obama in a statement said he hoped Congress would approve legislation authorizing the new program quickly, but that he would ask for a court order to continue the existing program for another 90 days in the meantime.
“I believe this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence needs while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which the information is collected and held,” Obama said of the new proposal.
The NSA program collects information about the phone numbers people dial and the length and frequency of their calls, but not the content of conversations. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the program last year.
The plan from the White House would not require phone companies to keep the records beyond the 18 months that current law requires. The NSA holds onto to people’s records for five years, and privacy advocates had worried about an extra mandate on the phone companies.
Obama said administration officials have been in contact with leaders of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees in Congress.
The White House’s release of its plan comes days after leaders on the House Intelligence Committee unveiled legislation of their own to end the NSA’s collection of people’s phone records.
The bill from Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) would also keep the phone data in the hands of private telecommunications companies without a mandate to retain it for longer than 18 months. However, government agents would not be required to get a court order before searching for a particular record.
Some civil liberties advocates have opposed the bill for that reason, and the senior administration official suggested that Obama would not be able to get behind it.
“We were very pleased to see that they agree with us that the government shouldn’t collect or hold the data, so I think that is a point of agreement that the House [committee] had with the president,” the official said.
Requiring the surveillance court to approve individual searches, however, is one of Obama’s “main criteria” for reform.
Administration officials were open to compensating telephone companies for the extra effort needed to comply with the government requests.
Phone companies are sometimes compensated when they have to produce records in response to court orders, the senior administration official said, and “I think we would see a similar approach” in the proposed plan.
Obama had called for a new path forward to the program by this Friday, when the existing court authority for the phone program was set to expire.
Reports had emerged about details of the White House proposal in recent days. Based on those reports, lawmakers and critics of the NSA’s snooping have been cautiously supportive of the president’s plan.
Speaking to reporters this week, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who have been among the most vocal critics of the agency, said that the proposal showed the White House had come around to their way of thinking.
“For years and years the executive branch denied that this was a problem. And the three of us, and millions of Americas, said not so fast,” Wyden said on Tuesday, after reports of the plan emerged.
The White House’s new attitude, he added, shows “they now agree with us and the American people.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has been reluctant to make drastic changes to the spy agency, called the president’s plan “a worthy effort.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has also supported the president’s plan to end the bulk records collection.