WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama put forward a plan Thursday to end bulk collection of telephone records, aiming to defuse a controversy over the government’s sweeping surveillance activities on millions of Americans.
In measures taken in response to a global outcry over the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping programs, Obama said telephone companies would be required to hold data for the same length of time they currently do, while allowing government agencies to access it with court approval.
“I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk,” Obama said, as he formally announced a long-awaited proposal to reform procedures for the NSA, which was rocked by disclosures in documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama said his plan, which needs congressional approval, would still allow the government to conduct surveillance to thwart terrorist attacks but it would make changes to address the public’s privacy concerns.
A White House statement said the NSA would need a court order to access the data, except in “an emergency situation,” which it did not define.
In those circumstances the court would be asked to approve requests based on specific telephone numbers “based on national security concerns,” the statement said.
“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.
The American president said that because the new plan would not be in place by a March 28 expiration date, he will seek a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, with some modifications he ordered in January.
“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,” he said.
A trove of documents leaked by Snowden, now a fugitive who has been given temporary exile in Russia, sparked an outcry in the United States and abroad about the vast capabilities of America’s intelligence programs.
Officials have defended the methods as necessary to thwart attacks on US and foreign soil but the extent of the NSA’s activities at home has divided domestic opinion.
In Congress, a group of lawmakers unveiled a bipartisan-backed bill this week to end bulk collection of telephone, email, and Internet metadata. Other bills are pending.
“We hope the Congress can act swiftly,” a senior US official said in a conference call explaining the plan.
A fact sheet released by the White House said that if the plan were implemented, “absent an emergency situation, the government would obtain the records only pursuant to individual orders from the FISC approving the use of specific numbers for such queries, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns.”
The government would be able to seek data “within two hops” or a suspect, and any records obtained would be governed by “minimization procedures,” that would require any information not related to an investigation to be discarded.
Obama provided an outline for his plan earlier this week, eliciting guarded optimism from privacy and civil liberties activists.
And Snowden, in a statement issued on Tuesday, said he envisaged a “turning point” in the effort to reform NSA surveillance.
Harley Geiger at the Center for Democracy Technology, a digital rights group, said this week the Obama proposal was flawed because it “only addresses the phone collection program, (and) would continue to allow bulk collection of other information, like Internet metadata, location information, and financial records.”
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