Obama to Rein In Telephone Metadata Collection?

The New York Times reports that President Obama is preparing to submit legislation that would rein in the NSA’s metadata collection activities. This is a follow up to his statement in January that he wants those records stored elsewhere and to require FISA warrants before being accessed.

The Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that — if approved by Congress — would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year, according to senior administration officials.

Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.

In a speech in January, President Obama said he wanted to get the N.S.A. out of the business of collecting call records in bulk while preserving the program’s abilities. He acknowledged, however, that there was no easy way to do so, and had instructed Justice Department and intelligence officials to come up with a plan by March 28 — Friday — when the current court order authorizing the program expires.

As part of the proposal, the administration has decided to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the program as it exists for at least one more 90-day cycle, senior administration officials said. But under the plan the administration has developed and now advocates, the officials said, it would later undergo major changes.

The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said.

They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies.

Okay, this is a good start. But here’s the thing: He can order much of this to be done immediately. He could have ordered it the day he took office. He has full authority to issue a presidential directive that forbids the NSA from engaging in bulk data collection of this type and/or requiring them to get a warrant before searching these databases. That would, of course, be what the 4th Amendment requires. So why didn’t he do this years ago?

We do need legislative reform as well, of course. Both the FISA law and the Patriot Act need major overhauls to bring them in line with the Constitution. But Obama’s track record on this is hardly reassuring, nor is the track record of the congressional leadership of both parties. Remember that as senator, Obama promised to filibuster the FISA Amendments Act if it included telecom immunity, then not only didn’t filibuster it but voted for it. Not exactly a cause for trust on this issue.

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About Ed Brayton

After spending several years touring the country as a stand up comedian, Ed Brayton tired of explaining his jokes to small groups of dazed illiterates and turned to writing as the most common outlet for the voices in his head. He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Thom Hartmann Show, and is almost certain that he is the only person ever to make fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.

  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    Yes, but this time is different because HOPE and CHANGE.

  • eric

    Having the service providers give relevant, limited data after receiving a warrant is exactly the system that should have been in place the entire time.

    Telling them the format seems like a very reasonable compromise. This, ironically, gives the corporate world more insight into how the NSA works instead of the other way around. :)

  • doublereed

    Gosh, you mean Snowden’s revelations went all the way to the presidency and is effecting real change in the collection of Americans’ information?

    It almost sounds like Snowden is a whistleblower and should be given immunity.

  • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

    Never mind the fact that, as Chief Executive, he has full authority to reign in the NSA by himself. But, yet again, he says what the public wants to hear and then drags his feet — hard — to make progress as slow as possible. And by the time everything is done, the only meaningful change will be to make another Snowden much more difficult to pull off while stripping whistleblowers of what little protection this administration is willing to recognize.

  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would.

    Great! Now our enemies know how we collect dataz!11 What is to stop them from circumventing this by creating their own massive telecom giants!!?! Thanks Obama.

  • bmiller

    Even if this “legislation” is passed, will it affect the Black Budget operations? There are tens of thousands of people working in these programs. Are they all going to be laid off?

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    He’s taking advantage of the fact that congress will obstruct him. Which means he doesn’t really want to rein in anything.

    More importantly, he’s only talking about metadata. Which means that they’re going to continue keeping the complete messages in archive, they just “won’t look at them” uh, until they need to. In other words what Obama is proposing to do is to ratify the surveillance state the same way Bush did by pardoning AT&T for complying with illegal orders he issued.

  • Trebuchet

    Can’t he just use one of those thousands of executive orders the TeaPartiers are convinced he has issued?

  • dingojack

    Obama to Rein In Telephone Metadata Collection?

    In a word — no*.



    * In five: ‘Not a chance in hell.

  • eric

    In other words what Obama is proposing to do is to ratify the surveillance state the same way Bush did by pardoning AT&T for complying with illegal orders he issued.

    What we really need is common, simple, no-work point-of-production encryption (and point of receipt decryption). Then they can collect whatever the heck they want.

  • Die Anyway

    Anyone who thinks such an order would actually stop the NSA from collecting this data raise your hand. {looks around} Yeah, thought so.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie



    The giving of all of the power to the state security apparatchiks is easy, getting it back, ha, ha, ha.

    I know it, you know it, the PotUS knows it and so does everyone in Congress who has ever had sex in the back of a limo or an airport restroom.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I don’t see how this would change a single thing, since the NSA would just (as they do now) get a FISA warrant for all of the data stored in that “other place.”

  • maddog1129

    I don’t know what could be done to the FISA courts and the PATRIOT Act to bring them into line with the constitution. I don’t see any need for secret courts. It’s the public’s business. Do it in regular federal court. If there is a need to have something sealed, then let it be sealed. The Constitution requires warrants. The default ALWAYS should be “get a warrant.” Scrap FISA courts, and scrap PATRIOT Act constitutional invasions of privacy.

  • Michael Heath

    I think future generations will consider President’s Obama’s most obvious failure in office to be his actions that had his administration in violation of the 4th and 5th Amendments. I won’t agree, I think Mr. Obama’s failure to prosecute the Bush Administration for torturing people and Obama’s mostly impotent advocacy to mitigate the climate change threat are two graver sins.

    However, even on the matter of his Administration unconstitutionally spying on Americans, we may see a marginal improvement in the future because of President Obama’s tenure in office. If so, that will come from his appointment of liberal judges.

    This is obviously a hope and shouldn’t be construed as a defense of the president’s indefensible actions on this matter.