- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2014

President Obama ordered the Justice Department on Thursday to seek a 90-day extension of the National Security Agency’s current phone surveillance program while Congress debates his proposed reforms.

Mr. Obama said in a statement that he’s seeking an extension of the controversial current program because the new legislation will not be in place by Friday, when the authorization for it expires. He said the surveillance is needed “given the importance of maintaining this capability” to prevent terrorist attacks.


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The White House said earlier this week that it wants to move the collection of bulk phone records out of the NSA and to place the responsibility with phone companies. The extent of the NSA’s surveillance created a furor when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now a fugitive in Russia, leaked its details.

“Having carefully considered the available options, I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, the data should remain at the telephone companies.”

Under the administration’s proposal, the government would obtain the data through individual orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said the president’s proposal will “ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence requirements while protecting civil liberties and privacy and being as transparent as possible.”


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But some privacy groups said the administration’s plan doesn’t go far enough to protect individuals from government snooping.

David Segal, executive director of the advocacy group Demand Progress, called the proposal “disappointing” because it doesn’t address the collection of email and other data.

“The proposal attempts to assure the American people that if the government doesn’t hold the telephone metadata in a government owned facility then civil liberties are restored,” Mr. Segal said. “It does not go nearly far enough.”

He said there is a better approach in the USA Freedom Act, legislation proposed by Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican. That measure, supported by 163 House lawmakers, would prevent the government from conducting bulk surveillance and would require requests for phone records to relate to an ongoing investigation.

Amie Stepanovich, senior policy counsel of the Internet advocacy group Access, said the administration’s proposal is a “significant step forward” because it would limit the amount of information that could be caught up in a single search. The NSA would only be able to query for data two “hops” away from its target, rather than the previous standard of three.

Rep. Adam Schiff, California Democrat and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the president’s proposal “is exactly the right call.”

“By moving to a system in which phone companies retain their own data, and searches are only conducted pursuant to an individualized court order, we will be able to protect both the country, as well as the privacy and civil liberties of Americans,” he said.