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)

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.