President Obama has renewed the NSA’s phone-snooping program for another three months, with the administration saying Monday that it’s too important to let it expire right now, defying members of Congress who said it was time to ax the controversial program.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper said Monday they’ve won a 90-day extension of the snooping authority from the secret court that oversees intelligence activities.
They said they’d prefer Congress rewrite the laws to limit the program, but Senate Republicans last month filibustered a bill to do that, foisting the decision about whether to renew the program back solely on the president.
“Given that legislation has not yet been enacted, and given the importance of maintaining the capabilities of the telephony metadata program, the government has sought a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program, as modified by the changes the president directed in January,” the two men said in a joint statement.
The new order was issued on Dec. 4, and gives the NSA snooping powers through Feb. 27.
The National Security Agency’s program collects the phone numbers, times and durations of calls made on U.S. telephone companies’ systems. The data is stored for five years, and investigators are allowed to check it to build a network of connections if they have a number they believe to be associated with terrorism.
Administration lawyers argue the program is justified by a part of the Patriot Act that they said allows for bulk collection of data on Americans. Opponents — including the Patriot Act’s author — say that’s a misreading of the law.
Congressional opponents easily won House passage earlier this year of a bill to rein in bulk collection, but Republicans filibustered a different version in the Senate last month. That filibuster signals it is unlikely Congress will reach an agreement on the snooping program next year, when the GOP will control both the House and Senate.
Given that gridlock, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the senior Democrat in the Senate, had urged Mr. Obama to kill the program himself by declining to seek the 90-day extension.
“The president can end the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records once and for all by not seeking reauthorization of this program by the FISA Court,” Mr. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said last week.
Mr. Obama says he’s already taken steps to limit the NSA’s snooping, including usually asking investigators to seek court permission before scouring the database for connections and limiting their search to just two “hops,” or connections, from the initial number they were investigating.
The program’s operations were mired in secrecy until it was revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden. And while details have now been discussed publicly, the program remains sensitive.
Even the fact that the administration sought another 90-day review was initially classified, and Mr. Clapper had to clear it for release. The final court order granting the extension should also be released once it too is declassified, likely in several weeks.