WASHINGTON – The White House wants the National Security Agency to get out of the business of sweeping up and storing vast amounts of data on Americans’ phone calls.
The Obama administration this week is expected to propose that Congress overhaul the electronic surveillance program by having phone companies hold on to the call records as they do now, according to a government official briefed on the proposal who spoke on condition of anonymity. The New York Times first reported the details of the proposal Monday night.
The White House proposal would end the government’s practice of sweeping up the phone records of millions of Americans and holding on to those records for five years so the numbers can be searched for national security purposes. Instead, the White House is expected to propose that the phone records be kept for 18 months, as the phone companies are already required to do by federal regulation, and that it be able to preserve its ability to see certain records in specific circumstances approved by a judge.
According to a senior administration official, the president will present “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.”
The president’s plan, however, relies on Congress to pass legislation – something that has so far seemed unlikely.
Details of the government’s secret phone records collection program were disclosed last year by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden. Privacy advocates were outraged to learn that the government was holding on to phone records of innocent Americans for up to five years. President Barack Obama promised to make changes to the program in an effort to win back public support.
In January, Obama tasked his administration with coming up with an alternative to the current counterterrorism program and suggested that the phone companies option was the most likely. However, he also said that option posed problems.
“This will not be simple,” Obama said. An independent review panel suggested that the practice of the government collecting the phone records be replaced by a third party or the phone companies holding the records, and the government would access them as needed.
The phone companies have been against this option, as well.