Report: Obama to overhaul NSA bulk phone data collection

President Barack Obama (C) and two secret service agents are silhouetted as he walks towards Marine One helicopter as they arrive at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport
President Barack Obama (C) and two secret service agents are silhouetted as he walks towards Marine One helicopter as they arrive at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport ahead of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit on March 24, 2014 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The Obama administration is expected to unveil a proposal to halt the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, The New York Times reported Monday evening.

Senior administration officials told the Times that the proposal, if approved by Congress, would leave phone companies in charge of Americans’ data. The surveillance overhaul would also let companies decide how long to retain those phone records.

President Obama mapped out his vision for sweeping changes to U.S. surveillance policy in January, saying that the government should not hold telephone records. The president announced the NSA would be allowed to pull phone records only after receiving permission from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge, but he stopped short of calls to dismantle the program entirely. 

The new proposal would require phone companies to provide records under court order for numbers likely tied to a suspected terrorist or group, according to the Times.

Momentum for reform swelled after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked troves of secret documents last June, exposing the breadth of the agency’s spying practices.

Leaders in the House Intelligence Committee are set to introduce a bi-partisan bill Tuesday that would also set limits on the bulk collection program. According to The Washington Post, the committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, and ranking Democrat, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, sponsored a bill that would bar the government from collecting any form of electronic communication in bulk. It would also not require phone companies to hold data longer than they normally do.

Unlike the Obama administration proposal, the bill would allow the NSA to issue subpoenas for phone records, but would not require judicial authorization beforehand.

Obama gave lawmakers until Friday to map out a plan for reform, when the sweeping "metadata" collection program comes up for reauthorization. According to the Times report, administration officials have decided to renew the current program for an additional 90-day cycle.

The Obama administration’s proposals come after the NSA’s spying programs faced strong criticism that questioned whether the practices effectively warded off potential terror attacks. In January, a privacy watchdog found the metadata program illegal and useless. A month earlier, a federal judge found that the program was likely unconstitutional and said the government “does not cite a single instance” in which the bulk data collection actually prevented an imminent attack. Even a surveillance policy review board, appointed by Obama, said the program was “not essential” to thwarting attacks.

Meanwhile, public support for the NSA’s spying practices has eroded in the months since Snowden’s massive document leak. According to a January study by Pew, approval of NSA surveillance was divided down party lines. Last June, 58% of Democrats approved of the agency’s data collection program, now only 46% do. As for Republicans, 45% approved of the program in June 2013, now only 37% do.