WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has signaled in recent weeks that it may seek the permanent renewal of a surveillance law that has, among other things, enabled the National Security Agency to gather and analyze Americans’ phone records as part of terrorism investigations, according to five US officials familiar with the matter.
The White House, these officials said, was prepared to issue a public statement calling on Congress to reauthorize in full Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which in the past has been the focus of heated debate over the acceptable bounds of government surveillance. The plan to issue a statement was put on hold, officials said, but it illustrates nonetheless where the administration stands on the contested issue of national security authority.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment or explain why the statement was not issued, saying only that the matter is still under deliberation.
Section 215 was last revised in 2015 as part of the USA Freedom Act after a former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, exposed how the government was collecting vast quantities of Americans’ phone logs to be able to scan them for clues to terrorist plots. This ‘‘metadata’’ denoted the calls’ time, date, and duration, and who called whom, but did not include the conversations’ content. The ensuing uproar led Congress to impose restraints, and last year, the NSA reportedly suspended the program because of technical issues that put Americans’ privacy at risk.
The statute expires in mid-December, and the reported suspension of the phone records program had raised questions about whether the Trump administration would seek to renew it. National security officials widely expect the administration to call for Congress to reauthorize the law without changes.
But the statute, which dates to 1998, empowers more than just the phone logs program. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress expanded the law to enable agencies investigating suspected espionage and terrorism to request court permission to gather data not just from a narrow set of businesses — such as hotels, warehouses, and car rental agencies — but also from any third party. And they could seek data related not just to ‘‘agents of a foreign power’’ but also to anyone whose information would be ‘‘relevant’’ to an ongoing investigation.
Allowing the law to lapse would ‘‘reset the clock back to 1998 and gut much more than the phone data aspect,’’ said Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas Austin. ‘‘It would set the general document collection power back to a highly narrow authority limited to a handful of industries.’’
Moreover, analysts note, the NSA might want to restart the phone logs program in the future if it can figure out how to make such data collection viable without violating citizens’ privacy rights. Preserving the full authority would permit that.
It remains a polarizing issue, however. Last May, the NSA purged hundreds of millions of call and text records after officials noted ‘‘technical irregularities’’ in data received from phone companies.