Washington • President Barack Obama asked Congress on Thursday to end quickly the government’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, which could be a big ask for lawmakers who don’t often move quickly without a looming deadline.
Responding to public outrage over the program of the National Security Agency — which operates a massive data center in Draper, south of Salt Lake City — the Obama administration came up with a new program that it says would address privacy concerns and preserve the government’s ability to fight terrorism.
Under the proposal, Congress has three months to draft and pass a measure to end the bulk collection program. The Obama administration has asked the court to reauthorize that collection for another three months, while lawmakers consider an alternative. Under the current system, the government gets court approval every three months to collect all call records from certain phone companies daily.
The real looming deadline for action is June 1, 2015. That’s when the section of a law that has been used to authorize the program is set to expire. The Obama administration could continue to seek court approval to collect the phone records five more times before the law expires.
Obama could have ended the bulk collection program now, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a proponent of changing NSA surveillance programs. The administration said it sought reauthorization for another 90 days to maintain its counterterrorism capabilities until a new program was in place.
Congress has been debating what to do about this once-classified program since last June, when former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed details about the massive surveillance operation. Dozens of bills have been introduced, and the issue has caused divisions even within political parties.
Finding consensus on how to change the program could take most, if not all, of the 430 days that Congress actually has. During that time period, many members of Congress are up for re-election, and the primary campaign for the next presidential race will be underway.
Until now, many thought Congress would most likely let the phone records collection program expire next year.
"I think that the administration was under the gun to come up with something that might satisfy those who want to see the end of the program, such that they could avoid that result in 2015," said Kevin Bankston of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.
Under the president’s plan, the government would have to get a court order and ask phone companies to search their records for specific numbers that are believed to be associated with terrorists. Phone companies would not hold onto the records for any longer than they’re already required to under federal regulation, which is 18 months.
"I believe this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence needs while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which the information is collected and held," Obama said in a statement Thursday. Obama has said that he never thought the program was unconstitutional or ripe for abuse, but he was forced to respond to perceived privacy concerns.
Key lawmakers said they like some of Obama’s proposal, but want more.
"I am glad that the president has come around and that there is now virtually universal agreement that the dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records must end," Leahy said. "The president’s proposal is promising, but true reform must be comprehensive."
Leahy’s own proposal, which has bipartisan support, would go further than the president’s plan and would prevent this administration and future ones from this type of bulk collection of other business records, such as financial statements.
A proposal from the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, which also has bipartisan support, has more similarities to Obama’s plan in that it would call for the government to query phone companies directly.
"They’re coming closer to our position here," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
However, Roger’s plan would not require prior court approval of searches. Court approval is part of the current program and would be part of Obama’s plan.
The phone companies — a key part of many of the legislative proposals — have been mostly silent on potential reforms to the phone records collection program. On Thursday, Verizon said it supported elements of the Obama plan, but noted it’s still early in the process.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.
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