- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On foreign soil, President Obama said Tuesday he wants to overhaul the National Security Agency’s surveillance program by ending government collection and storage of bulk phone-call data.

The announcement, at an international summit in the Netherlands, came before a Friday deadline for restructuring the NSA program that collects millions of U.S. phone records a year. Under the administration’s plan to be submitted to Congress, the government would be required to conduct searches of data at phone companies.

“This ensures that government is not in possession of that bulk data,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference. “This proposal that’s been presented to me would eliminate that concern.”

He added that the proposal “allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack.”

In addition to ending the practice of collecting and storing data, a judge would be required to approve each government inquiry into a database.

But until Congress approves legislation, Mr. Obama will keep renewing a court order authorizing the current NSA phone program. The legal authority for that mass surveillance expires at 5 p.m. Friday.

The president had given aides a deadline of Friday to come up with a new plan.

Mr. Obama has been under fire for the spying since it was revealed a year ago by fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.

Mr. Obama’s proposal is similar to bipartisan legislation released Tuesday by the House Intelligence Committee.

The House bill, though, would not require a judge’s permission before the government seeks records from the phone companies, instead making judicial review retroactive. The House bill also doesn’t require a search request be part of a continuing investigation.

With an eye toward the vociferous criticism in Europe of U.S. spy programs, Mr. Obama said American surveillance is focused only on national security and is “not snooping into the privacy of ordinary Dutch, German, French or American citizens.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, called the White House plan “a worthy effort.”

“Under the plan, records would remain under the control of the telecommunications companies that generate them, and each query would be subject to court review,” Mrs. Feinstein said. “I have said before that I am open to reforming the call records program as long as any changes meet our national security needs and address privacy concerns, and that any changes continue to provide the government with the means to protect against future terrorist attacks.”

She said she would schedule a hearing on the administration’s plan and on the House Intelligence Committee’s bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative counsel, Michelle Richardson, called the White House proposal “a crucial first step towards reining in the NSA’s overreaching surveillance.”

But she criticized the House proposal, saying it would result in “demolishing the important judicial role in overseeing these programs.”

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