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White House To Propose Halting NSA Bulk Collection Of Phone Data

The sign outside the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md.
Patrick Semansky
The sign outside the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md.

President Obama is preparing to announce a plan to scrap the government's systematic collection of bulk phone records as part of a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency's controversial electronic surveillance activities.

The New York Times, quoting senior administration officials, reports:

"Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans' calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order."

The revamping of NSA procedures was broadly outlined by President Obama in a January speech following months of leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. The president said he wanted to get the government out of the business of collecting phone data. As we reported at the time, Obama said he'd ordered drafting a plan "that would shift that data to some other entity."

The Times reports:

"As part of the proposal, the administration has decided to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the program as it exists for at least one more 90-day cycle, senior administration officials said. But under the plan the administration has developed and now advocates, the officials said, it would later undergo major changes.

"The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said.

"They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or 'hops,' removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies."

However, as The Washington Post notes, the overhaul doesn't go far enough for some privacy advocates.

A proposed House bill would prevent the NSA from collecting any form of electronic communication in bulk, the Post says.

Update at 3:38 p.m. ET. 'A Crucial First Step':

The American Civil Liberties Union, an ardent critic of NSA surveillance, welcomed this development, saying it is a "crucial first step" toward reining "overreaching surveillance."

"The change would replace the dragnet surveillance of millions of innocent people with targeted methods that are both effective and respect Americans' constitutional rights," Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with ACLU said in a statement. "It is critical that the administration also end other bulk collection programs."

Update at 12:10 p.m. ET. Obama: Plan Satisfies Public Concerns

Speaking at a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands, following a nuclear security summit there, Obama said he believed the proposal would satisfy public concerns about NSA surveillance activities.

Although he said he thought "some of the dangers hypothesized as regards bulk data" had been overwrought that, he understood those concerns.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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