The Obama administration laid out a new set of surveillance rules Thursday that would transfer the storage of millions of telephone records from the government to private phone companies. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
The Obama administration laid out a new set of surveillance rules Thursday that would transfer the storage of millions of telephone records from the government to private phone companies.
The plan, developed in response to protests about the reach of National Security Agency surveillance tactics, requires a sign-off from Congress.
"Having carefully considered the available options, I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk," Obama said in a statement. "Instead, the data should remain at the telephone companies for the length of time it currently does today."
Obama pledged to work with Congress on developing a workable plan that would accommodate counter-terrorism investigations while protecting constitutional liberties.
"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," Obama said.
Government officials could still access the phone data with approval from the special foreign intelligence court, according to the plan, though there are exceptions in cases of national security emergencies.
The House Intelligence Committee issued a plan this week that would also transfer storage authority to phone companies but allow the government to access records without prior court approval. A judge would review the government's request after agents obtained the data, a provision that has drawn objections from civil libertarians.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said requiring judicial approval for record searches in every case would slow down probes, giving terrorism suspects "greater protections than those given to U.S. citizens in criminal investigations every day in this country."
Overall, however, Rogers said he's glad "the president has moved our direction" on an NSA overhaul.
The idea of ending government storage of metadata appears to have bipartisan support.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the Intelligence Committee's bill starts "a bipartisan conversation" about surveillance programs, and he added, "I expect part of this effort will include the end of the government holding onto bulk data."
Under both plans, phone companies would in some way be compelled to provide metadata, including incoming and outgoing phone numbers and call times, in a readily usable format.
As the administration and Congress debate new NSA rules, Obama has directed the Justice Department to ask the special court for a 90-day extension of the existing program.
Officials with the phone companies said they want to study the details of a final plan.
Randal Milch, general counsel for Verizon, said phone companies should not be required to do anything more for the government than what "they already do for business purposes." Milch said phone companies respond in a timely way, but "should not be required to create, analyze or retain records for reasons other than business purposes."
Some members of Congress — such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — have called for tighter restrictions on NSA surveillance activities.
NSA revelations, including reports that it has spied on foreign leaders, have triggered criticism of Obama.
Tweeting shortly after Obama's audience Thursday with Pope Francis, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said the president should have told the pontiff: "Forgive me father for I have spied."
NSA surveillance techniques became public last year with leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama called for new NSA rules in a January speech, and he gave aides until March 28 — Friday — to develop legislation to end the NSA's ability to sweep up and store all kinds of telephone records.
Snowden, now living in Russia while facing charges in the U.S., praised Obama's efforts earlier this week.
"This is a turning point, and it marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public's seat at the table of government," Snowden said in a statement released by the ACLU, which is helping with his legal representation.
David Jackson writes for USA Today.