Obama holds meeting on NSA

Focused on court, phone records, lawmakers say

WASHINGTON — President Obama is still grappling with key decisions on the future of the National Security Agency’s phone collection program and the makeup of the secret court that approved the surveillance, lawmakers said Thursday after a 90-minute meeting at the White House.

Obama is expected to back tighter restrictions on spying on foreign leaders and is also considering a presidential commission’s recommendation to strip the NSA of its ability to store telephone records from millions of Americans.

The president could reveal his final decisions as early as next week.


‘‘The president and his administration are wrestling with the issues,’’ Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and privacy advocate, said after the meeting. ‘‘It’s fair to say that the next few weeks are going to be crunch time in terms of judgments being made in both the administration and the Congress.’’

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Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, said the meeting focused on the telephone metadata program and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Metadata are pieces of information about a phone call, such as the length and time of the conversation and site, but does not include the contents.

The president also met this week with his top intelligence advisers, many of whom oppose changes to the NSA programs, and a review group appointed by Congress that is working on a report focused on the surveillance systems. Privacy advocates met with senior White House staff Thursday afternoon, and technology companies have been invited to a meeting on Friday.

The president’s decisions will test how far he is willing to go in scaling back the NSA’s broad surveillance powers. A presidential commission handed him more than 40 recommendations, many of which were more sweeping than expected. However, Obama is not obligated to accept any of the proposals.

On Thursday, FBI Director James Comey told reporters he disagrees with a recommendation that would require the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve the bureau’s use of national security letters. These are legal demands for information that are part of an ongoing investigation, such as demanding the phone records of a suspected terrorist inside the United States.


Opponents of involving the court in that process argue that it would make it more difficult for the FBI to conduct a national security investigation than to conduct a bank fraud case. Supporters of the change say that without any court oversight, agents can use the letters for fishing expeditions that violate privacy rights and recipients have little recourse.

While Obama’s decision is highly anticipated, the White House indicated it may not be his final word on the matters. Obama spokesman Jay Carney said that while the president is likely to want some changes implemented right away, ‘‘there may be some that would require further review.’’

Congress will likely have to approve some of Obama’s reforms, particularly if he makes changes to the phone collection program.