WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama asked Congress Thursday to end the government's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, a move that he said would address privacy concerns but maintain the administration's ability to counter terrorism.
The new proposal is a direct response to outrage by Americans and others that began last June when former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden disclosed details of the once-classified program.
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. Currently, the National Security Agency gets all call records from certain phone companies daily, and holds them for five years. When the NSA wants to search the database for a certain phone number connected with terrorism, it gets court approval to do so. This practice will continue for at least another three months.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said the president could end the bulk collection now, if he wanted to.
"I hope he chooses this path," Leahy said earlier this week.
Congress has yet to come to a consensus on how to change the phone records program, though it's been hotly debated since last June.
The Bush and Obama administrations interpreted a particular section of the USA Patriot Act to authorize this bulk collection, and a secret surveillance court has signed off on the interpretation dozens of times since 2006. Others, including one federal judge and an independent review group appointed by Obama, do not read the law the same way.
Senior administration officials, who spoke anonymously because the White House would not allow them to be quoted by name, described the new plan to reporters Thursday.
Under Obama's proposal, the government would only seek specific records that the phone companies have in their possession. The phone companies are required by federal regulation to retain records for 18 months. Before the government asks the phone companies to turn over certain records, it has to get approval from the secret surveillance court that there is a reasonable suspicion the phone number in question is connected to a terrorist. In cases of emergencies, the government would not need to get court approval to ask the phone companies to conduct the search. A senior administration official would not explain what constitutes an emergency situation.
Under Obama's plan, the phone companies would quickly turn over the results of this search in a consistent format, which would require the phone companies to make some technical changes. The companies would then search for those numbers consistently over a "limited" period of time. A senior administration official would not specify the length of that time period.
Previously, the government searched for numbers distantly-linked to a specific number. The new plan would limit the distance of numbers connected to the original number believed to be associated with a terrorist. This means the government would only be able to search for the phone number of the suspected terrorist and the phone numbers of the suspected terrorists' contacts. Previously, the government was searching for the suspected terrorists' contacts' contacts. Even under the limited search, the government is likely to sweep up phone records of people who have no ties to terrorism.
"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.