WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that — if approved by Congress — would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year, according to senior administration officials.
Under the proposal, they said, the NSA would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the NSA could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.
In a speech in January, President Obama said he wanted to get the NSA out of the business of collecting call records in bulk while preserving the program’s capabilities. He acknowledged, however, that there was no easy way to do so, and had instructed Justice Department and intelligence officials to come up with a plan by Friday when the current court order authorizing the program expires.
As part of the proposal, the administration has decided to renew the program as it currently exists for at least one more 90-day cycle, senior administration officials said. But under the plan the administration has developed and now advocates, the officials said, the government would no longer systematically collect and store records of calling data. Instead, it would obtain individual orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain only records linked to phone numbers a judge agrees may be linked to terrorism.
The NSA now retains the phone data for five years. But the administration considered, and rejected, imposing a mandate on phone companies that they hold on to their customers’ calling records for a period longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require — a burden that the companies had resisted and that was seen as a major obstacle to keeping the data in their hands. A senior administration official said that intelligence agencies had concluded that the impact of that change would be small because older data is less important.
The new surveillance court orders would require phone companies to swiftly provide those records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said.
They would also allow the government to seek related records for callers up to two calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion.
The NSA uses the once-secret call records program — sometimes known as the 215 program, after Section 215 of the Patriot Act — to analyze links between callers in an effort to identify hidden terrorist associates, if they exist. It was part of the secret surveillance program that President George W. Bush unilaterally put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, outside of any legal framework or court oversight.
In 2006, the Justice Department persuaded the surveillance court to begin authorizing the program. It claimed that Section 215, which allows the FBI to obtain court orders for business records deemed “relevant” to an investigation, could be interpreted as allowing the NSA to systematically collect domestic calling records.
Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union said: “We have many questions about the details, but we agree with the administration that the NSA’s bulk collection of call records should end.”