Obama defers to Congress to end NSA phone tracking

President Obama won’t end the government’s controversial collection of data about millions of Americans on his own, because he’d rather the matter be dealt with by Congress.

“I’m still hopeful that we can actually get a bill passed,” Obama told BuzzFeed News in an interview this week.

“There is bipartisan support for the bill, and, as has been true in a lot of instances — including on immigration — my preference is always to actually get legislation passed because it’s a little longer lasting.”

In the year and a half since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed how the NSA was secretly collecting “metadata” about Americans’ phone calls — including information about who was calling whom and when — civil liberties advocates have called on Obama to end the program with the stroke of a pen.

The programs needs to be continually reauthorized by the courts every 90 days. If he wanted to, critics say, Obama could simply end it by neglecting to have it renewed. Instead, he has made some minor changes to the structure of the program, such as limiting searches to records about people two steps removed from a target, instead of the previous three.

In the meantime, Congress has struggled with legislation to effectively end the program and require the government to get data from private phone companies.

The USA Freedom Act came two votes shy of overcoming a GOP-led filibuster in the Senate last year, serving as a bitter reminder of the high hurdles NSA critics need to surmount to rein in the agency.

The issue is likely to come to a head in the next four months, before the current legislative authorization for the program runs out, when a critical part of the Patriot Act expires on June 1.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the head of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Wednesday that that deadline “will help focus both the House and the Senate on passing this.”

Speaking to a tech lobbying group’s breakfast meeting on Capitol Hill, Goodlatte predicted that final legislation would look “quite similar” to a version of the USA Freedom Act that passed through the House last year. Civil libertarians said the bill had effectively been gutted by the time it hit the floor of the chamber by including broad definitions that would have allowed the NSA to search for everyone in a certain area code or some other large category.

Goodlatte pledged that new legislation would address some of its critics’ fears about the definitions in the law.

“Stay tuned on that one,” he said.

Still, Congress’s inability to pass reform last year and the new Republican majority in both chambers have darkened the prospects of significant reform in coming weeks, especially given rising fears about terrorism around the globe.

— Updated at 11:54 a.m.