WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence agencies in June will stop bulk collection of data on calls by U.S. telephone subscribers, unless Congress extends a law authorizing the spying, U.S. officials said on Monday.
The disclosure that the National Security Agency was collecting metadata generated by domestic telephone users was one of the most controversial revelations made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden nearly two years ago.
A spokesman for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council said abandoning the mass collection of domestic telephone data would deprive the country of a “critical national security tool.”
The law, due to expire on June 1, allows the NSA to collect bulk data on numbers called and the time and length of calls, but not their content.
Efforts by Congress to extend the law so far have proved fruitless.
A Senate Intelligence Committee spokeswoman said the panel is developing legislation. In the House of Representatives, an aide said any NSA reform bill is unlikely until after a separate measure to enhance information sharing between companies and intelligence agencies.
There are deeply divergent views among the Republicans who control Congress. Some object to bulk data collection as violating individual freedoms. Others consider it a vital tool for preventing terrorist attacks.
NSC spokesman Ned Price told Reuters the administration had decided to stop bulk collection of domestic call metadata unless Congress re-authorizes it.
Some legal experts have suggested that even if Congress does not extend the law the administration might be able to convince the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to authorize collection under other authorities.
Price made clear the administration does not intend to do so. The administration is encouraging Congress to enact legislation in the coming weeks that would allow collection to continue.
“If Section 215 (of the law which covers the collection) sunsets, we will not continue the bulk telephony metadata program,” he said.
“Allowing Section 215 to sunset would result in the loss, going forward, of a critical national security tool that is used in a variety of additional contexts that do not involve the collection of bulk data.”
Last year the administration proposed that if collection continued, the data should be stored by telephone companies rather than the NSA. The companies rejected that approach.
U.S. officials have said metadata collection helped important counter-terrorism investigations. However, a review panel found no breakthrough that could be attributed to the practice. (additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle)