(In paragraph 6, cuts repeat of "President Barack Obama.")
By Roberta Rampton and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, March 27 The Obama administration on
Thursday announced details of its plan to end the government's
vast bulk collection of data about phone calls made in the
United States, including new procedures to get judicial approval
before asking companies for such records.
Under the plan, phone companies would have to provide data
from their records quickly and in a usable format when requested
by the government, a senior administration official told
reporters on condition of anonymity.
The plan would also allow the government to seek such data
without a court order in a national security emergency. But some
U.S. officials who examined the president's proposals said they
left important issues unresolved.
Under the Administration's plan, instead of telephone
metadata being collected and stored in bulk from telephone
companies by the National Security Agency, companies themselves
would hold the data and be required to respond to specific,
court-approved queries about it from the NSA.
However, officials familiar with current laws and
regulations governing how telephone companies handle such data
said that Obama's plan raises, but does not answer, significant
practical questions about how companies would collect and store
In a statement outlining his plan, President Barack Obama
nonetheless insisted, "I am confident that this approach can
provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the
information they need to keep us safe while addressing the
legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised."
Some key aspects of Obama's plan will need Congressional
approval. Congressional officials said the Administration had
not yet sent to Capitol Hill its proposed legislative language.
The U.S. government began collecting so-called telephone
metadata, most controversially including the metadata of calls
made within the United States, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks on the United States, under part of the Patriot Act
known as Section 215.
Metadata consists of a record of which phone numbers call
which other numbers, when calls were made and how long they
last. It does not include the calls' content.
The existing program's defenders have claimed intelligence
agencies can use the data to find connections between people
plotting attacks overseas and co-conspirators inside the United
States, while critics viewed it as an infringement of privacy
Obama has been under pressure to rein in surveillance since
former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last
year disclosed classified details about the breadth of the
government's intelligence gathering, sparking an international
A special review panel appointed by Obama to review the
metadata collection program reported late last year that there
was little evidence that it had led to a single major
counter-terrorism breakthrough. Intelligence officials now refer
to metadata collection as more of an "insurance policy" than a
front-line spying tool.
SHORT ON DETAILS
Under Obama's proposal, the secretive Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance (FISA) Court would have to approve in advance all
but emergency requests from intelligence agencies for gathering
records associated with a specific phone number. After receiving
such a request, phone companies could be required to turn over
data associated with that number on an "ongoing and prospective"
basis, a senior administration official said on a conference
Companies would be compelled to provide technical assistance
to the government to query the records, and may be compensated
in a way that is consistent with current procedures, the
However, two U.S. officials familiar with the current
program and relevant laws and regulations said that while
current government regulations require telephone companies to
store billing data for 18 months, the requirement does not
necessarily spell out how they must store it. Some companies, a
third official said, may well store such data on paper, making
such records difficult to search quickly.
One of the officials also noted that some telephone
companies had moved away from historical billing practices.
Instead of billing subscribers for each individual call, they
now in some cases offer flat-rate, bundled service plans, which
for billing purposes do not require logging and charging for
each individual call.
Obama's plan does not address these details, and
Administration officials did not immediately respond to requests
for clarification from Reuters.
NEXT STEP: CONGRESS
Because making some of its proposed changes in the metadata
program are complicated, the administration said it would ask
the FISA court to allow it to operate its existing program for
at least another 90 days, as Congress weighs legislation.
"We would hope that the Congress would take something up
very expeditiously," an administration official said.
At least two proposals for ending bulk collection of phone
data have already been unveiled by lawmakers.
In October, Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the
Senate Judiciary Committee, and Jim Sensenbrenner, a House
Republican, introduced a bill called the USA Freedom Act that
would require the government to show a request for data was
relevant to an ongoing investigation.
Privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties
Union, have endorsed that bill, which they said more
comprehensively addresses concerns about how the government
collects and uses internet metadata.
"Our phone records are sensitive, but so are our financial
records, internet information, email data. It reveals who we
know, where we go, what we do, what we think and what we
believe, and those sorts of records need just as much
protection," Michelle Richardson, the ACLU's legislative
counsel, told reporters.
The top Republican in the House of Representatives, Speaker
John Boehner, has endorsed a different approach proposed earlier
this week by top lawmakers on the House of Representatives'
That plan, decried by privacy advocates, would not require
the government to first get court approval of a request for
data. Instead, the court could order the data expunged if it was
later found not to be linked to suspicious activity.
But Obama has been clear that "one of the main attributes"
he wanted to see in the overhaul was requiring court approval
before data requests are made, the senior administration
official said, noting the government has been following that
practise since January.
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Susan
Heavey, David Storey, Paul Simao and Andrew Hay)