Obama says NSA plan would address criticisms

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday publicly endorsed a plan that Justice Department and intelligence officials have developed for a sweeping overhaul of the National Security Agency's phone-call records program, saying that he believed it would resolve privacy concerns without compromising the program's utility as a counterterrorism tool.

"They have presented me now with an option that I think is workable," Mr. Obama said. "I'm confident that it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack, but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people had raised."

The president made his remarks at a news conference in the Netherlands.

The administration has not formally unveiled the plan yet, but it was detailed in a New York Times story that was based on accounts from senior administration officials.

If Congress approves the plan, the NSA would no longer collect records about Americans' calling habits in bulk. Instead, the data would stay with phone companies, which would not be required to retain it any longer than they normally would.

A judge's order would be required before the NSA could obtain records of callers who are linked to a suspect. The order would require the companies to swiftly provide the data in a standard technological format and allow the government to obtain the phone records of people up to two calling links, or "hops," from a suspect, even if they had different providers.

The question of whether judges should review each request ahead of time is a major difference between the administration plan and a new bipartisan bill unveiled Tuesday by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and the ranking minority member, Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md.

Their plan would also keep the bulk data in phone companies' hands without new retention mandates, but government analysts could subpoena records without prior judicial review. Instead, the surveillance court would review the requests afterward, expunging data if it did not meet the standard.

"Our concern is that it would take too long" to require analysts to get court approval ahead of time, Mr. Ruppersberger said. "You need flexibility in the process."

But senior administration officials noted that Mr. Obama in January had started requiring prior court approval, except in emergencies, as an important check. They said the NSA had found the arrangement workable.

Mr. Obama has also given Justice Department and intelligence officials a deadline of Friday to come up with a way to end bulk collection of phone data while preserving the program's utility.

The officials familiar with the resulting review said there were about five "deputies' meetings" led by the White House counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, with representatives from the affected agencies. At a lower level, lawyers and operators from the agencies worked through the details in a process run by Stuart Evans, an aide to Ms. Monaco.

Federal regulations generally require phone companies to retain call records for at least 18 months, though some choose to hold on to it longer. Among the issues the administration examined was whether to impose a longer retention mandate. Both the industry and privacy advocates opposed that idea.

The question, the officials said, was how much the value of the program would be diminished from its current form, in which the NSA keeps the data for five years. They said intelligence operators, looking back at more than a dozen years of experience with the program, reported that the data's utility fell off after two or three years.


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