After months of debating how to reform the National Security Agency’s bulk telephony metadata program, the Obama administration confirmed on Tuesday that it will ask Congress to pass legislation that restructures the program and ends the government’s practice of retaining bulk phone records.
Under the proposal, as described in media reports, the NSA would end its collection of bulk calling records. Instead, the telephony metadata that the NSA previously collected in bulk would remain with telecommunications companies, which would only be required to retain those records for the 18 months they are required to do so under current law. The proposal would require the NSA to obtain permission from a judge to access specific records under a new type of court order. President Obama confirmed in a press conference on Tuesday that the plan “insures that the government is not in possession of that bulk data.” Any changes to the program would have to be approved by Congress.
In a January 17 speech, President Obama announced a series of reforms to the nation’s surveillance practices, including overhauling the bulk collection program. He called for an “end” to the program “as it currently exists” and directed the intelligence community and the Attorney General to develop options for a new approach. Those agencies were to report back to Obama before this Friday, March 28, when the current court order authorizing the program expires.
Also on Tuesday, leadership of the House Intelligence Committee announced its own proposed legislative reforms of the bulk collection program. As with the Administration’s proposal, the Committee would have telecommunications companies keep the records for the 18 months they are already required to do so. However, the Committee’s proposal appears to require the Government to obtain advance approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (“FISC”) only with respect to its selection procedures, and not for individual requests for data. Only after the Government directs a provider to produce metadata would the Government have to submit its evidence supporting its request to the FISC for review, under the Committee’s proposal.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman who has defended the NSA program, called the Administrator’s plan “a worthy effort” and said she intends to schedule a hearing that will examine both the House Committee’s bill and the Administration’s proposal.