WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials directed by President Barack Obama to find a way to end the government's role in gathering Americans' phone records are deeply concerned that there may be no feasible way to accomplish the task soon, said individuals familiar with the discussions.
In a speech last week, Mr. Obama put the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in charge of developing a plan by March 28 to transfer control of the massive database of records away from the National Security Agency -- a step aimed at addressing widespread privacy concerns. But even among U.S. officials who applauded the recommendation in principle, there is a growing worry that the president's goals are unattainable in the near future, officials said.
Phone companies have said they do not want to be responsible for the program, and no one has come up with a workable idea for how a third party could hold the records.
"The idea that this complicated problem will be solved in the next two months is very unlikely, if not impossible," said one official with knowledge of the discussions. "It is not at all inconceivable that the bulk collection program will stay the same, with the records held by the government until 2015," when the law that authorizes the bulk collection is set to expire.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity.
No meeting has been set between government officials and phone companies to discuss the issue, and no decision has been made to approach the companies to further discuss the prospect of their holding the records.
Under the program, the NSA collects billions of records daily on Americans' phone calls -- the numbers dialed and lengths and times of calls, but not the content. The agency stores the "metadata" for five years in an effort to map links among terrorism suspects.
In his speech, Mr. Obama said the government should preserve the capability to use the records but moved to narrow government access to them by ordering aides to develop a plan to "transition" the data out of federal control. He also acknowledged that the process would "not be simple."
Ten minutes after the speech, a Justice Department spokesman said, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. assembled more than half a dozen agency officials, including lawyers from the national security division, for a meeting to discuss how to accomplish the president's goals. "The attorney general strongly supports the president's reforms and is committed to working with the intelligence community to implement them as quickly as possible," said agency spokesman Brian Fallon.
Other officials, including many in the intelligence community, said they are skeptical that a new system could balance national security and privacy interests better than what now exists.
"In my view, it will be very difficult to come up with a new plan that matches the current state of affairs in terms of security, privacy and operational effectiveness," former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said.
Even if the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department agreed on a plan to have phone companies or an independent board store the phone data, they would have to sell their proposal to Congress, where there is resistance among some lawmakers, including the House and Senate intelligence committees' chairmen, to making substantial changes to the program.