Some of the fiercest defenders of the National Security Agency now want to end the agency’s controversial practice of collecting records on millions of U.S. phone calls.
Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the panel’s top Democrat, unveiled their legislation on Tuesday morning, and President Obama is preparing to announce his own plan this week.
The proposals mark a dramatic shift from last year, when the administration and the Intelligence Committee leaders argued that it was vital to national security that bulk data collection continue. But the public outcry and demand for stronger privacy protection forced the officials to agree to modify the controversial program.
Under Obama’s proposal, the vast database of phone records would stay in the hands of the phone companies, The New York Times reported late Monday. To access data on a particular target, the NSA would have to first obtain an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The plan would allow for a new kind of court order that would force the companies to provide the phone records on a continuing basis, including new calls placed after the order was issued, according to the report.
But Obama’s proposal would not impose any new mandate on the phone companies to retain the data, according to the report. Phone companies would battle any attempt to force them to hold on to data longer than they already do. Under federal regulations, they already must hold records for 18 months for billing purposes.
Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, confirmed that in the coming days, the president “will put forward a sound approach to ensuring the government no longer collects or holds this data, but still ensures that the government has access to the information it needs to meet the national security needs his team has identified.”
But the proposal requires congressional approval, and the administration’s authority from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect phone data under the program is set to expire on Friday. Hayden said the administration will ask the court for permission to continue the program as it currently exists until Congress acts.
The White House’s plan is very similar to the bill that Rogers and Ruppersberger, two of the staunchest supporters of the NSA, put forward on Tuesday.
Like the president’s proposal, the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act would shift the phone database into private hands. But unlike the president’s plan, the bill would require court review only after the NSA issues the orders.
The Intelligence Committee bill would also prohibit the bulk collection of other records, such as Internet data, library records, or medical data. Obama’s proposal would only address the bulk collection of phone records.
The House legislation would also require the government to release more information about the surveillance court’s decisions.
In a statement, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, said both proposals would make “seemingly significant changes” to NSA spying. The group said it prefers the White House plan because it would impose more judicial review on the process.
At a press conference Tuesday, Rogers and Ruppersberger said they have been in close contact with the White House and their Senate counterparts and they hope to reach an agreement soon.
But their legislation doesn’t go far enough for supporters of the competing USA Freedom Act, which would raise the standard the NSA would need to meet to access the data.
Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the House author of the USA Freedom Act, said the Intelligence Committee’s proposal “is a convoluted bill that accepts the administration’s deliberate misinterpretation of the law.”
But Ruppersberger and Rogers warned that the USA Freedom Act would jeopardize U.S. national security.
“In my opinion, the Sensenbrenner bill makes our country less safe,” Ruppersberger said.
The NSA claims that the bulk data collection is authorized under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. That provision is set to expire on June 1, 2015. If Congress can’t agree on a way to reform the program by then, the program will have to end entirely.
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