March 26, 2014
Obama, Congress Propose Plans To Overhaul NSA Surveillance Practices
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
President Obama and members of Congress proposed on Tuesday plans to end the National Security Agency's (NSA) bulk collection and storage of Americans’ telephone records, although both proposals would still allow the Obama administration to access this information when needed.
Senior administration officials told The Washington Post that the president’s plans, which are still being finalized, would allow data about phone calls made to and from Americans to be kept with the phone companies, rather than stored with the government, and that these companies would not be required to hold the data any longer than they normally would.
However, the proposal would require telecom companies to make this data available to the government on a real-time, ongoing basis – an idea embraced by NSA leaders, officials told The Post.
But Mr. Obama emphasized that his plan would ensure that “a judge is looking at each individual” phone number to ensure it is associated with a suspected terrorist organization before telecom companies are asked to search their records for information about the number.
The government’s controversial phone surveillance practices, which were exposed last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, have triggered a contentious national debate over privacy rights. In January, president Obama gave his administration until March 28, when current orders expire, to find a way to end the mass collection of phone data.
However, officials now say the administration has decided to renew the current program for at least 90 days, meaning the government will continue during that time to collect the numbers, times and dates of Americans’ telephone calls, but not their content.
President Obama’s remarks coincide with those made Tuesday by leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, who have drafted a bipartisan bill that would also end the NSA’s bulk data collection activities and have phone companies retain these records.
The House bill would also reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to clarify that the government can no longer collect any form of electronic communication in bulk, according to the bill’s co-sponsors, committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D- MD), its ranking Democrat.
“We believe this can be the solution for those of us who want to preserve important national security capabilities while heeding the legitimate concerns of many that the collection of bulk telephone metadata has a potential for abuse,” Rogers told The Post.
“The most important thing is getting the public’s confidence that their government is out there protecting them against terrorist attacks” while respecting privacy and increasing transparency.
Rogers’ district includes the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters.
The Rogers-Ruppersberger legislation would also prohibit the mass collection of different types of information, including records of phone calls, Internet activity, and location information, congressional aides told The Post.
Like the President’s plan, the House bill would not require telecommunication companies to retain data any longer than they currently do, and requires the government to serve a directive on any company from which it requests data.
Both the administration’s and the House proposal allow data up to two hops away from a target to be gathered.
However, one important difference between the plans is that the Rogers-Ruppersberger bill does not call for judicial approval of a specific phone number before a request for data is submitted to a phone company. Rather, the legislation would have the court make that determination “promptly” after the FBI submits a phone number to a telecom company. If the court did not approve the number as being linked to an agent of a foreign power, including terrorist groups, the data collected would be purged.
Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), who has co-sponsored competing NSA reform legislation with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), said the Rogers-Ruppersberger bill “limits, but does not end, bulk collection,” and falls “well short” of the protections offered in his bill.
Civil liberties organizations generally praised the new plans outlined on Tuesday, but expressed concern for some of the provisions.
“The president’s reported plan to end the bulk collection of phone records is a crucial first step towards reining in the NSA’s overreaching surveillance,” said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“The change would replace the dragnet surveillance of millions of innocent people with targeted methods that are both effective and respect Americans’ constitutional rights.”
However, “it is critical that the administration also end other bulk collection programs.”
The Electronics Frontiers Foundation (EFF) welcomed both plans for NSA reform, but criticized their limited scope.
“Both the Obama administration and the Intelligence Committee suggest that mass collection end with no new data retention requirements for telephone companies. This is good news, but we have not seen the details of either and details, as we have learned, are very important in assessing suggested changes to the NSA’s mass spying,” the EFF said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The Obama administration does not go beyond the telephone records programs, which are important, but are only a relatively small piece of the NSA's surveillance and, by itself won’t stop mass surveillance.”
The group expressed its support and preference for the Leahy-Sensenbrenner plan, also known as the USA FREEDOM Act, calling it “a giant step forward and better than either approach floated today since it offers more comprehensive reform, although some changes are still needed.”
“We urge the administration and the Intelligence Committees to support the USA FREEDOM.”
Ms. Richardson with the ACLU also voiced the group’s preference for the USA FREEDOM Act, calling it “the best bill we’ve seen so far to fix the NSA.”
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of the most vocal critics in Congress of the NSA’s surveillance programs, said news of the White House plan represented a welcome retreat of the executive branch power.
"For years, the executive branch said it was essential to have this information, that it was indispensable," Wyden told CNN, adding that he and his colleagues had argued against that idea.
"Today's exciting news for the constitutional rights of the American people is the administration said they agree with us."