US President Barack Obama has asked Congress to end quickly the government’s bulk collection of telephone records, which could be a big ask for lawmakers, who do not often move quickly without a looming deadline.
Responding to public outrage over the US National Security Agency (NSA) program, the Obama administration on Thursday came up with a new program that it says would address privacy concerns and preserve the government’s ability to fight terrorism.
Under the proposal, US Congress has three months to draft and pass a measure to end the bulk collection program. The Obama administration has asked the court to reauthorize that collection for another three months, while lawmakers consider an alternative.
Under the current system, the government gets court approval every three months to collect all call records from certain telephone companies daily.
The real looming deadline for action is June 1 next year. That is when the section of a law that has been used to authorize the program is set to expire. The Obama administration could continue to seek court approval to collect the telephone records five more times before the law expires.
Obama could have ended the bulk collection program now, said Senator Patrick Leahy, Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a proponent of changing NSA surveillance programs.
The administration said it sought reauthorization for another 90 days to maintain its counterterrorism capabilities until a new program is put in place.
US Congress has been debating what to do about the once-classified program since June last year, when former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed details about the massive surveillance operation. Dozens of bills have been introduced and the issue has caused divisions, even within political parties.
Finding consensus on how to change the program could take most, if not all, of the 430 days that US Congress actually has. During that time, many members of Congress are up for re-election and the primary campaign for the next presidential race will be underway.
Until now, many thought US Congress would most likely let the telephone records collection program expire next year.
“I think that the administration was under the gun to come up with something that might satisfy those who want to see the end of the program, such that they could avoid that result in 2015,” said Kevin Bankston of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.
Under the president’s plan, the government would have to get a court order and ask telephone companies to search their records for specific numbers that are believed to be associated with terrorists. Telephone companies would not hold onto the records for any longer than they are already required to under federal regulation, which is 18 months.
“I believe this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence needs, while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which the information is collected and held,” Obama said in a statement on Thursday.