Obama Asks Congress to End NSA Mass Surveillance

The president wants to limit NSA spying, but he’ll have to wait on Congress.

President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, January 17, 2014.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
March 27, 2014, 6:27 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama out­lined his plan Thursday to end the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s con­tro­ver­sial prac­tice of col­lect­ing re­cords on mil­lions of U.S. phone calls.

But the pro­gram will con­tin­ue as it is cur­rently struc­tured un­til Con­gress can pass the pres­id­ent’s pro­pos­al — or something sim­il­ar.

Un­der Obama’s plan, the vast data­base of phone re­cords would stay in the hands of the phone com­pan­ies. To ac­cess data on a par­tic­u­lar tar­get, the NSA would have to first ob­tain an or­der from the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court. The NSA would be able to by­pass the court pro­cess for an “emer­gency situ­ation.”

Those or­ders would force the phone com­pan­ies to provide data, such as in­com­ing and out­go­ing phone num­bers and call times, on an on­go­ing basis. The phone com­pan­ies would also have to provide tech­nic­al as­sist­ance to en­sure the gov­ern­ment can eas­ily mine though the re­cords. A seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said the phone com­pan­ies would likely re­ceive money to cov­er their com­pli­ance ex­penses, al­though the de­tails haven’t been worked out yet.

The phone com­pan­ies would op­pose any new data re­ten­tion man­date, but Obama’s plan would not force them to hold the data longer than they already do un­der fed­er­al rules. 

“I am con­fid­ent that this ap­proach can provide our in­tel­li­gence and law-en­force­ment pro­fes­sion­als the in­form­a­tion they need to keep us safe while ad­dress­ing the le­git­im­ate pri­vacy con­cerns that have been raised,” Pres­id­ent Obama said in a state­ment.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cur­rent au­thor­ity from the FISC to col­lect vast batches of re­cords from the phone com­pan­ies is set to ex­pire Fri­day. Giv­en that Con­gress won’t be able to en­act any re­forms be­fore then, the ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to ask the court to ex­tend the pro­gram in its cur­rent form for an ad­di­tion­al 90 days.

Pri­vacy groups and some law­makers, in­clud­ing Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy, have said the pres­id­ent should let the pro­gram lapse.

But the pres­id­ent ar­gued that hav­ing some cap­ab­il­ity to mine through phone re­cords to track pos­sible ter­ror­ist plots is crit­ic­al for na­tion­al se­cur­ity. He main­tained that he can’t im­pose the changes uni­lat­er­ally be­cause “le­gis­la­tion will be needed to per­mit the gov­ern­ment to ob­tain this in­form­a­tion with the speed and in the man­ner that will be re­quired to make this ap­proach work­able.”

The top Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion earli­er this week that would make sim­il­ar re­forms to the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion pro­gram. But un­like the pres­id­ent’s pro­pos­al, their bill would only re­quire that the FISC re­view the or­ders for data after the fact rather than ap­prove them ahead of time.

Leahy and oth­er law­makers are con­tinu­ing to push a more ag­gress­ive bill, the USA Free­dom Act, which would raise the stand­ard the NSA would need to meet to ob­tain the phone data and make re­forms to oth­er pro­grams, such as In­ter­net sur­veil­lance of people in oth­er coun­tries.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates ap­plauded Obama’s pro­pos­al and noted how far he had come since ini­tially de­fend­ing the pro­gram after it was re­vealed by Ed­ward Snowden last June.

But they wor­ried that the pro­pos­al only ap­plies to the bulk col­lec­tion of phone call in­form­a­tion un­der a spe­cif­ic pro­vi­sion of the Pat­ri­ot Act and wouldn’t af­fect oth­er NSA pro­grams sweep­ing in re­cords such as fin­an­cial data or emails.

“Any pro­pos­al to ad­dress the prob­lem of bulk data col­lec­tion is fatally in­com­plete if it doesn’t pro­hib­it the bulk col­lec­tion of any kind of re­cord un­der any of the NSA’s vari­ous leg­al au­thor­it­ies,” said Kev­in Bank­ston, the policy dir­ect­or for the Open Tech­no­logy In­sti­tute at the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion.

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