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Obama's Plan to Rein In NSA Phone Sweeps Obama's Plan to Rein In NSA Phone Sweeps

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Obama's Plan to Rein In NSA Phone Sweeps

The president plans to limit the NSA's most controversial program. Will it be enough to calm privacy fears?

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

photo of Brendan Sasso
January 17, 2014

President Obama will outline a plan Friday to limit the National Security Agency program that collects records on virtually all phone calls within the United States.

A senior administration official told National Journal that Obama will announce an end to the program "as it currently exists."

The NSA's bulk collection of phone records is the most controversial revelation from the leaks by Edward Snowden, and ending the program is the top goal of privacy advocates.

 

Obama will require the NSA to obtain a court order every time it wants to search through the phone record database, according to the administration official.

Previously, NSA analysts were supposed to have "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that a phone number was associated with terrorism before accessing its call history, but the analysts could perform the search without any court approval.

The administration official said Obama has asked Attorney General Eric Holder and top intelligence officials to come up with a proposal to "preserve the necessary capabilities of the program" without the government holding the phone records.

Privacy advocates have urged the government to give up control over the vast phone database. The president's review panel also recommended that a private group hold the records.

But privacy advocates would fiercely oppose any mandate requiring telecom companies to maintain the records. And the companies themselves have no interest in new regulatory requirements to oversee the massive database.

The database includes "metadata" such as phone numbers, call times, and call durations—but not the contents of any conversations.

Intelligence officials argue that the program, which they say was authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, is critical for "connecting the dots" and combatting terrorism.

But the president's own review panel concluded that the program has not been responsible for preventing any terrorist attacks.

"The president believes that the 215 program addresses important capabilities that allow us to counter terrorism, but that we can and should be able to preserve those capabilities while addressing the privacy and civil liberties concerns that are raised by the government holding this metadata," the administration official said.

Privacy advocates expressed cautious optimism about Obama's proposal, but noted that the biggest question is whether the government will impose a data retention mandate on the phone companies.

"This is an important first step," Michelle Richardson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said. "We will work to convince them that current corporate data retention practices are sufficient and that new retention regimes are not necessary."

Greg Nojeim, an attorney for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the program "needs to be ended, not merely modified."

"If the President's endgame is to require telecoms to maintain the data themselves so the NSA can query it, that plan is going nowhere, fast," he said.

Getting Off the NSA's Grid

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