WASHINGTON — President Obama's new plan for the National Security Agency would significantly curb its authority, ending its vast collection of Americans' telephone records, but at the same time give the spy agency access to millions of cellphone records it currently does not reach.
The compromise, which would require Congress' approval, won praise Tuesday from prominent lawmakers, including leading defenders and critics of the agency. But it faces a lengthy legislative process during which the agency will continue to collect and store the records of millions of U.S. telephone calls.
At a news conference in The Hague, where he took part in a world meeting on nuclear security, Obama said the Justice Department and intelligence agencies had given him "an option that I think is workable" and that "addresses the two core concerns that people have" about the most controversial surveillance program revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The first concern, Obama said, was that the government not control a vast archive of U.S. telephone call data. Currently, the NSA collects records of virtually all land-line telephone calls in the U.S. and stores them for five years.
Under the administration proposal, the government would no longer keep that archive. Instead, all telephone companies, including cellphone providers, would be required to keep call records for 18 months, the current industry standard.
The second concern, Obama said, was that the NSA be allowed to search only those phone records under a specific court order. Previously, a blanket court order required telephone companies to turn call records over to the NSA, but no judge scrutinized analysts' decisions about which numbers to look at.
In February, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved Obama's request to require judicial approval for each search. The new proposal would write that requirement into law, with an exception for emergencies.
U.S. intelligence agencies have to "win back the trust, not just of governments but more importantly of ordinary citizens" around the world, Obama said. Doing so is "not going to happen overnight because I think that there's a tendency to be skeptical of government and to be skeptical, in particular, of U.S. intelligence services," he added.
The new plan should help make Americans more comfortable with the surveillance program, he said. Obama repeated his belief that "some of the reporting here in Europe, as well as the United States, frankly, has been pretty sensationalized," and he said that U.S. intelligence analysts had exercised their authority judiciously. But such power could be abused in the future, he said.
"The fears about our privacy in this age of the Internet and big data are justified," he said.
The NSA does not obtain the contents of communications under the telephone program. But the ability to map a person's communications with times, dates and the numbers called can provide a window into someone's activities and connections.
Snowden's disclosures to journalists made the existence of the program public in June. It was the first of a stream of stories that have revealed some of the government's most sensitive electronic intelligence efforts.
In a statement through his lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, Snowden, who has taken refuge in Russia, called Obama's proposal a "turning point."
"It marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public's seat at the table of government," his statement said.
The NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander, also embraced the proposal. "I think it's the right thing to do, and I think it addresses our counter-terrorism operational mission requirements," he said in an interview.
Alexander, who is retiring Friday, has been lobbying members of Congress to adopt the plan. NSA officials consider the compromise the best outcome the agency could hope for, particularly since its authority to collect phone records will expire in 18 months unless Congress reauthorizes it.
Congressional critics of the spy agency praised some aspects of the proposal, but urged the NSA to immediately halt further collection of telephone records until Congress acts.
"This is the start of the end of dragnet surveillance in America," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Joined by Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in an unusual bipartisan alliance, Wyden has pressured the White House over the NSA's activities.
"They can stop immediately," Paul said. "There's nothing forcing them to keep collecting the data."
Administration officials, however, say they plan to continue the collection for at least three more months while Congress debates. They have not ruled out continuing longer if Congress does not act.
Two leading NSA supporters, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, unveiled their own proposal Tuesday that tracks the White House plan in most respects, with a major exception: It would not require court approval each time phone records are searched.
The parts of the administration proposal dealing with cellphone companies would provide significant benefits for the NSA, Alexander acknowledged in the interview. Although the agency's archive includes hundreds of millions of telephone records, U.S. officials disclosed last month that it did not reach a large segment of cellphone calls. As a result, the NSA may collect only about 30% of call data in the country.
The administration's new plan would require cellphone providers to keep records much as land-line companies do, significantly expanding the NSA's access to information.
"This could actually make the program more efficient and more effective [and] at the same time more protective of civil liberties," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who proposed legislation in January similar to the White House plan.
White House officials have been laying the groundwork with phone service providers, which would be required to standardize their records and make them available on a continuously updated basis. The NSA would be allowed to search up to two "hops" of phone numbers connected to a number linked to a terrorist, meaning all the numbers connected to the suspect number and all the numbers connected to that first set of connections.
The once-secret program, authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, is used by the NSA to analyze links between callers in an effort to identify hidden terrorist plots in the United States. Intelligence officials have said it played a role in thwarting at least a dozen terrorist plots. Critics say only one case was discovered as a direct result of a phone record search — an Anaheim cab driver who was sentenced last month to six years in prison for sending money to Somalia's Al Qaeda affiliate.
Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in The Hague contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times