US National Security Agency

Obama bids to win back public trust with changes to NSA's collection of phone records

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 4:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 9:37am

US President Barack Obama plans to ask Congress to end the bulk collection and storage of phone records by the National Security Agency but allow the government to access the metadata when needed, a senior administration official said.

If Congress approves, the Obama administration would stop collecting the metadata, which lists millions of phone calls made in the United States. The practice triggered a national debate over privacy rights when the extent of the surveillance programme was exposed last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Instead, the government would have to get permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review data about the time and duration of phone calls it believes may be connected to terror attacks, according to The New York Times, which first reported the plan.

Obama has been grappling with a backlash to US government surveillance programmes since classified details about the extent of data-gathering were first leaked by Snowden.

“We have got to win back the trust not just of governments, but, more importantly, of ordinary citizens. And that's not going to happen overnight, because there's a tendency to be sceptical of government and to be sceptical of the US intelligence services,” Obama said at a news conference in The Hague.

The president has defended use of the data to protect Americans from attacks. His plan seeks to hold on to "as many capabilities of the programme as possible" while ending the government's role in controlling the database, the official said.

The administration would renew the metadata programme until Congress passed new authorising legislation, the official said.

Obama made some decisions about changes to the programmes in January, including a ban on eavesdropping on the leaders of friendly or allied nations.

But he charged Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence agencies to make additional proposals for the metadata programme by March 28, when it comes up for reauthorisation.

The New York Times said the administration would propose that phone companies keep the data. But they would not be required to hold on to the data any longer than they normally did.

The administration had considered requiring the companies to hold on to data for longer than 18 months. But it had rejected that idea after concluding newer data was most important for investigations, The Times said.

Two top lawmakers on the House of Representatives' intelligence panel were slated to unveil a bipartisan measure on metadata use later yesterday.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Mike Rogers and Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger, would require the government to "serve a directive" on telecommunication companies for data, The Washington Post reported, citing congressional aides.

Their bill would not require court approval of the request before it was made, but the court could order the data expunged if it was later found not to be linked to suspicious activity.

The government began collecting metadata soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks. A surveillance court allowed the data collection based on a legal provision known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act.