Obama Renews Authority for Bulk Collection of Phone Records While Saying He Opposes It

Monday, March 31, 2014
(AP Graphic)

Disingenuous and insincere are two ways to describe President Barack Obama’s proclamation that he wants the National Security Agency (NSA) to end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.


While claiming he supports the end of this controversial surveillance program, Obama has demonstrated through his actions that he still very much wants the program around.


First, the president says he wants Congress to adopt new legislation (still to be introduced) that would terminate the bulk collection of phone records and would institute other means for data to be collected. But if he really wanted this outcome, he could simply ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to not renew the NSA’s authority to carry out this work. That authority was due to expire March 28.


But Obama didn’t go this route.


Instead, he asked the U.S. Department of Justice to request a 90-day extension of the authority from the FISC—so that Congress has time to deliberate and adopt a measure to kill the program.


Some observers were dubious that the current, deeply divided, Congress will act on such a controversial issue. For example, Make Masnick of Techdirt opined that, “Tossing this on Congress is a great way for the President to pretend to do something while knowing nothing will actually happen.”


An announcement from the White House said Obama wants the legislative plan heading to Congress to do the following:


“The government will not collect these telephone records in bulk; rather, the records would remain at the telephone companies for the length of time they currently do today;


“Absent an emergency situation, the government would obtain the records only pursuant to individual orders from the FISC approving the use of specific numbers for such queries, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns;


“The records provided to the government in response to queries would only be within two hops of the selection term being used, and the government’s handling of any records it acquires will be governed by minimization procedures approved by the FISC;


“The court-approved numbers could be used to query the data over a limited period of time without returning to the FISC for approval, and the production of records would be ongoing and prospective;


“The companies would be compelled by court order to provide technical assistance to ensure that the records can be queried and that results are transmitted to the government in a usable format and in a timely manner.”


A proposal being floated by members of the House Intelligence Committee would differ in some of the standards for data collection, according to The Guardian. The bill, titled the End Bulk Collection Act of 2014, would prevent the government from acquiring “records of any electronic communication without the use of specific identifiers or selection terms.”


The bill’s provisions would allow the collection of electronic communications records based on “reasonable articulable suspicion,” rather than probable cause or relevance to a terrorism investigation, from someone deemed to be an agent of a foreign power, associated with an agent of a foreign power, or “in contact with, or known to, a suspected agent of a foreign power.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Reforming the NSA: The Rival Plans to Curb Government Surveillance (by Spencer Ackerman and Nadja Popovich, The Guardian)

Obama Still Asking FISA Court To Renew Bulk Phone Collection (by Mike Masnick, TechDirt)

Obama to Set Out Proposal to End NSA's Mass Collection of Phone Data (by Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian)

FACT SHEET: The Administration’s Proposal for Ending the Section 215 Bulk Telephony Metadata Program (White House)

Obama and NSA Surveillance: What Won’t Change (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

NSA Phone Data Collection Made No Difference to National Security (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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