WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency would lose its authority to collect and hold years' worth of telephone calling records but gain access to cellphone information it currently lacks under an Obama administration proposal aimed at quieting controversy over the spy agency’s data archive.
The plan, which would need congressional approval, would significantly curb what has been the most controversial secret program revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Currently, the NSA collects most landline calling records and stores them for five years in a database that it periodically searches using telephone numbers connected to terrorists abroad.
The new proposal would end the NSA’s practice of holding the massive amounts of calling data. Administration officials hope that would assuage public concerns that an intelligence agency had access to information that could reveal deeply private information. Though the NSA does not obtain the contents of communications under the program, the ability to map a person’s communications with times, dates and numbers called can provide a window into someone's activities and connections.
But the compromise plan would also offer benefits for the NSA that might give privacy advocates pause. Most importantly, it would expand the universe of calling records the agency can access. After months of suggesting that they were collecting all the calling metadata, U.S. officials disclosed last month that a large segment of mobile phone calls were not covered by the program, and that as a result the NSA may only collect 30% of all call data in the country.
That revelation raised questions about the efficacy of the current program, said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who proposed legislation in January that tracks closely with the White House proposal.
“This could actually make the program more efficient and more effective [and] at the same time more protective of civil liberties,” Schiff said.
Under the new arrangement, phone companies would be required to standardize their data and make it available on a continuously updated basis so the NSA could search it for terrorist connections. The NSA would have to obtain a court order for such a search, said an administration official who confirmed details of the program on condition of anonymity because it has not yet officially been released. The proposal was first reported Monday night by the New York Times.
The NSA would be allowed to search up to two “hops” of numbers connected to a known terrorist number, meaning all the numbers connected to the suspect number, and all the numbers connected to that first set of connections.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA's director, who is retiring, has been lobbying members of Congress in favor of the compromise. He believes it is the best outcome the NSA could hope for with the program, the official said. The NSA's collection authority currently will expire in 18 months unless Congress reauthorizes the program.
White House officials also have been laying the groundwork with the phone service providers to get them on board.
In recent days, key lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees have said they could support a change in the way the records are stored, as long as the NSA still has access to the data.
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 inside the United States.
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