The top Republican and Democrat on the House intelligence committee agreed on legislation to end the U.S. National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records, e-mail and other Internet communications, according to a congressional aide.
Under the bill, the government would no longer retain such data en masse and instead issue directives requiring AT&T Inc. (T), Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and other U.S. carriers to search their databases for information, said the aide who wasn’t authorized to discuss legislation that’s not yet public. The measure will be unveiled tomorrow by Representatives Mike Rogers of Michigan, the committee’s Republican chairman, and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat.
The deal is significant because the panel led by Rogers and Ruppersberger will play a central role in changing surveillance programs exposed by former government contractor Edward Snowden, who’s living in Russia under temporary asylum.
The revelations last year about U.S. spying set off a global debate over the tradeoffs between privacy and security. President Barack Obama in January ordered his administration to develop alternatives to having the NSA collect and hold phone records, which include numbers dialed and call durations without content of conversations. Recommendations are due to Obama on March 28.
Lawmakers are also weighing changes to U.S. surveillance programs in response to the international backlash. Rogers, who has defended the NSA data collection as a useful tool for combating terrorist threats, has scheduled a news conference with Ruppersberger tomorrow.
Snowden exposed a classified order from a secret court under which the NSA compels U.S. carriers to turn over phone records on billions of users globally. The current order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court expires March 28, when it could be renewed for another three months.
Under the proposal from Rogers and Ruppersberger, phone companies would search their databases of call records based on numbers provided by the government, the aide said. The companies would send the search results to the government and wouldn’t be required to retain the records any longer than they normally do, the aide said.
Government directives to the carriers would be reviewed by the secret court after searches are done. The companies also could challenge a directive before the court, the aide said.
The directives wouldn’t have to relate to an existing terrorism investigation, the aide said. The absence of such a requirement may draw opposition from other lawmakers and privacy advocates who want government leeway to be narrow.
The current authority for the NSA phone-records program expires in June 2015, a deadline that’s forcing lawmakers to act.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a March 21 statement that she’s “open to changes” that would end the NSA’s collection of bulk phone records.
The California Democrat, one of the strongest defenders of the surveillance program, also will play a critical role in deciding what changes are made. She said she would consider “alternatives that preserve the operational effectiveness of the call records program and can address privacy concerns.”
Two federal panels that separately investigated the phone records program concluded that it played no role in stopping terrorist plots. The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board both said the program should be ended.
Prohibiting the collection of other bulk data, such as e-mails, will likely be welcomed by Internet companies and privacy advocates. An NSA program that collected Internet metadata was discontinued in 2011 after being found to not be operationally effective.
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