By Eileen Sullivan
WASHINGTON: To assuage privacy concerns, the White House and some lawmakers are pushing forward with changes to a surveillance program that would leave the bulk storage of millions of Americans’ telephone records in the hands of phone companies, even though they are convinced the information now held by the government is protected and question whether the changes would actually do more to protect privacy.
President Barack Obama intends to ask Congress to end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. Instead, the government would ask phone companies to search their records for possible links to terrorism.
Obama said that any alternatives to the government holding onto the phone records posed difficult problems and raised privacy issues. And Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes the data is safer with the National Security Agency, even though he recommended it be moved from the agency’s custody.
“We’re changing the program based on a perception, not a reality,” Rogers said shortly before he introduced legislation that would end the program in its current form. Americans, Rogers said, don’t want the government holding onto their data.
“They just didn’t have a comfort level with the NSA holding, in bulk, metadata, even though we had huge levels of protection,” Rogers said. “I do believe that privacy was better protected than you’re going to see in the phone companies.”
The metadata is the number called, the number from which the call is made, and the duration and time of the call, but not the content of the call or the callers’ names.
The White House proposal, which has not been described in great detail yet, and the House Intelligence Committee’s proposal both shift the custody of the phone records to the phone companies, which already hold onto the records for 18 months as federal regulations require.
In January, Obama tasked his administration with coming up with new options to the telephone records program by March 28. Obama said officials offered an option that he thinks is workable and addresses concerns raised by the public.
“I want to emphasize once again that some of the dangers that people hypothesize when it came to bulk data, there were clear safeguards against,” Obama said Tuesday at a news conference in the Netherlands at the end of a nuclear security summit. “But I recognize that people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data. This proposal that’s been presented to me would eliminate that concern.”
Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who worked as a systems analyst, leaked details of the government’s secret phone records collection program last year.
“After Snowden, there was a lot of mistrust, and we have to deal with that,” Rogers said.
The president’s proposal would require congressional action, something that so far has seemed unlikely. Multiple bills have been introduced, with proposals ranging from killing the program outright to adding more layers of oversight. The government plans to continue its bulk collection program for at least three months. The March 28 deadline reflects the date that the current court authorization for the bulk collection expires. The administration has asked a court to renew it for at least three months, not unlike what it’s requested in the past.
“The president’s reported plan to end the bulk collection of phone records is a crucial first step towards reining in the NSA’s overreaching surveillance,” said Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The change would replace the dragnet surveillance of millions of innocent people with targeted methods that are both effective and respect Americans’ constitutional rights.” Richardson also said the government should end other bulk collection programs, as well.
The bulk phone records collection program is set to expire in the summer. If Congress can’t agree on changes before then, the program would end completely.
Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Md., who co-authored the House Intelligence Committee legislation, said the bill has the support of the phone companies.
“There’s been a lot of negotiation with them, but I think we’ve come to this agreement or we wouldn’t be here now,” Ruppersberger said.
In several meetings with White House staff since December, phone company executives opposed shifting the custody of the records from the NSA to them. The executives said they would only accept such changes to the NSA program if they were legally required and if that requirement was spelled out in legislation.
The companies are concerned about the costs of retaining the records and potential liability. The discussions with the White House ceased earlier this year. Industry officials said they had not been in contact with the administration as new options were being considered.
By Chris Strohm
and Julianna Goldman
The U.S. National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records, e-mail and Internet data would end under legislation unveiled today by the top Republican and Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
The government would no longer keep phone records en masse under the bill and instead issue directives requiring AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and other U.S. carriers to search their files for information.
“When you make changes, you assume a little more risk,” Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the House committee’s Republican chairman, said at a press conference today. “I think the risk is a place that we can accept as we move forward.”
President Barack Obama said at a news conference today in the Netherlands that he’s received recommendations he sought from intelligence officials on ending the data storage by the government and would work with lawmakers on legislation.
Rogers and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, announced the bi-partisan agreement on the bill, which is significant because their panel will play a key role in revamping spying programs exposed last year by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
Revelations about U.S. surveillance set off a global debate over the trade-offs between privacy and security. Obama in January ordered his administration to develop alternatives to having the NSA collect and hold phone records, which include numbers dialed and call durations without content of conversations. Until Congress makes changes, the president has ordered that the current program be renewed with changes he outlined in January.
Obama said today he has received recommendations from intelligence officials on a plan to end the government’s role in holding bulk phone records.
“I’m confident that it allows us to do what is necessary to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people have raised,” Obama said during a stop on his trip to Europe, where the NSA surveillance has been a source of tension between the U.S. and Germany.
He said his administration would work with Congress to pass legislation “quickly.”
The lawmakers weighed the same issues in proposing to revamp U.S. surveillance programs in response to the international backlash. Rogers, who has defended the NSA data collection as a useful tool for combating terrorist threats, appeared at a news conference with Ruppersberger today.
“We have a drastic, major change that will not put our country at risk,” Ruppersberger said.
Snowden, who’s facing U.S. espionage charges and living in Russia under temporary asylum, exposed a classified order from a secret court under which the NSA compels U.S. carriers to turn over phone records on billions of users globally. The current order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court expires March 28, when it could be renewed for another three months.
Under the proposal from Rogers and Ruppersberger, phone companies would search their databases of call records based on numbers provided by the government, the aide said. The companies would send the search results to the government and wouldn’t be required to retain the records any longer than they normally do, the aide said.
Government directives to the carriers would be reviewed by the secret court after searches are done, according to the House members’ plan. The companies also could challenge a directive before the court, the aide said.
The directives wouldn’t have to relate to an existing terrorism investigation, the aide said. The absence of such a requirement may draw opposition from other lawmakers and privacy advocates who want government leeway to be narrow.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a March 21 statement that she’s “open to changes” that would end the NSA’s collection of bulk phone records.
The California Democrat, one of the strongest defenders of the surveillance program, also will play a critical role in deciding what revisions are made. She said she would consider “alternatives that preserve the operational effectiveness of the call records program and can address privacy concerns.”
Current authority for the NSA phone-records program expires in June 2015, a deadline that’s forcing lawmakers to act.
The Obama administration and lawmakers are under pressure from Internet companies and civil liberties advocates to restrain U.S. spying. Obama has said his administration already ended some of the surveillance practices disclosed by Snowden and in January promised further restraints while defending spying as a bulwark against terrorism.
On March 21, the president met at the White House with Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and five other Internet and technology executives to discuss NSA spying following revelations the agency may have infected millions of computers globally with malware to advance surveillance.
“People around the globe deserve to know that their information is secure and Facebook will keep urging the U.S. government to be more transparent about its practices and more protective of civil liberties,” the Menlo Park, California- based company said in a statement after the meeting.
Two federal panels that separately investigated the phone records program concluded that it played no role in stopping terrorist plots. The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board both said the program should be ended.
Prohibiting the collection of other bulk data, such as e- mails, will likely be welcomed by Internet companies and privacy advocates. An NSA program that collected Internet metadata was discontinued in 2011 after being found to not be operationally effective.
--With assistance from Roger Runningen and Jonathan Allen in Washington and Mike Dorning in The Hague.