Obama urges Congress to pass NSA changes

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has called on Congress to move quickly to pass legislation that would achieve the president's goal of ending government mass collection of Americans' phone records.

"Having carefully considered the available options, I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk," President Barack Obama said in a statement Thursday, adding that "legislation will be needed."

"We really hope that the Congress can act swiftly," said a senior administration official, who spoke in a conference call on the condition of anonymity.

The official did not specify a timeline but noted that the administration was reauthorizing on Friday the current system of data collection by the National Security Agency for another 90 days, suggesting that that would be an appropriate window of time for lawmakers to act.

Mr. Obama in a speech in January said he wanted to end the government's gathering and storage of what officials say are hundreds of billions of records about Americans' phone calls. Since the program was disclosed last June, it has prompted concern about the potential for abuse.

At the same time, Mr. Obama has said he believes the government needs to preserve a capability to seek clues to terrorist plots that officials say can be hidden in the records.

Attention now shifts to Congress, which has before it several competing bills that seek varying degrees of change -- some more ambitious than the White House's. But Mr. Obama's proposal has become the baseline, analysts said.

"The president's plan is a major step in the right direction and a victory for privacy," American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero said. "But this must be the beginning of surveillance reform, not the end." Mr. Romero urged support for legislation that would end all forms of bulk collection, not just for phone records.

The senior official laid out "key attributes" of legislation that Mr. Obama wants to see on his desk. They include the principles that:

-- Except in emergencies, the government will receive records only with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approving the use of specific phone numbers for queries.

-- Query results would be limited to two hops from the original number, and the data will be subject to privacy rules approved by the court.

Under the proposal, the NSA could investigate all the numbers that had been in touch with the targeted phone -- the first "hop" -- plus all the numbers that the owners of those phones had contacted -- the second "hop."

"Being 'two-hops' from a suspicious person should not subject innocent Americans to a government data grab," said Mike German of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. "The president's proposal fails to address, and in fact perpetuates, the collection of completely innocent Americans' data for inclusion in the NSA's 'corporate store,' where it can be used for myriad purposes, not just terrorism."

-- The records would remain with phone companies for the length of time they normally would keep them -- there will be no mandate to hold them longer.

-- The phone companies will return results on a continuous, ongoing basis.

-- The companies will be compelled by court order to ensure that the results are returned in a usable format and timely manner.

Mr. Obama has already ordered some changes to the program -- but he wants those made permanent through legislation. For instance, the surveillance court in February approved the two-hop limit and the requirement that every number queried be approved in advance by a judge as associated with a terrorist or a terrorist group.

A key lawmaker, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said this week she believes the president's plan "is a worthy effort." She said she will schedule a hearing to examine his proposal as well as a separate plan put forward by the bipartisan leadership of the House Intelligence Committee.

On Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Committee released a report expressing concern about the NSA's various surveillance activities. One concern is that the current oversight system "fails to effectively protect the rights of those affected," the report stated.

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