WASHINGTON — President Obama asked Congress on Thursday to quickly overhaul the government’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, which could be a tall order for lawmakers who do not often move fast without a looming deadline.
Responding to public outrage over the National Security Agency program, the Obama administration came up with a remedy it says would address privacy concerns and preserve the government’s ability to fight terrorism.
Under the proposal, Congress has three months to draft and pass a measure to radically change the bulk collection program. The Obama administration has asked the court to reauthorize that collection for another three months, while lawmakers consider an alternative.
Under the current system, the government gets court approval every three months to collect all call records from certain phone companies daily.
The real looming deadline for action is June 1, 2015. That is when the section of a law that has been used to authorize the program is set to expire.
Obama could have ended the bulk collection program now, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who favors changing the NSA’s surveillance programs. The administration said it sought reauthorization for another 90 days to maintain its counterterrorism capabilities until a new program was in place.
Congress has been debating what to do about this once-classified program since June, when former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed details about the massive operation.
Dozens of bills have been introduced, and the issue has caused divisions even within political parties. Finding consensus on how to change the program could take most, if not all, of the 430 days that Congress has.
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. Phone companies would not hold onto the records for any longer than they are already required to under federal regulation, which is 18 months.