President Obama formally announced Thursday proposed reforms to National Security Agency surveillance techniques, saying the government should turn storage of metadata over to private phone companies.
“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,” Obama said after an administrative review of the controversial NSA program. “Instead, the data should remain at the telephone companies for the length of time it currently does today.”
The administration was forced to address the clandestine metadata program in the wake of leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden. Civil liberties groups have pressured the White House to halt bulk collection of Americans' information, calling it an Orwellian invasion of privacy.
Phone companies had balked at storing the controversial data, but the White House is banking that the limited timeframe for housing the information will alleviate their concerns.
Under Obama's proposal, the government would also need authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for every search of a specific phone number.
However, such proposals will require congressional approval — and Capitol Hill remains divided on how to best overhaul the NSA practices. The White House will continue to reauthorize the program until Congress finds a legislative fix.
For his part, Obama is hoping to put out a political fire that has angered his own base.
“I believe this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence needs while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which the information is collected and held,” Obama said Thursday.
The president had instructed Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials to report back to him by the end of March with ideas for how the government could turn over the metadata to another entity.
Obama this week is in Europe, where U.S. allies have raked the president over the coals for the controversial spying practices. The president told European leaders in recent days that his proposed reforms would address their concerns.
However, some privacy groups said the administration should take executive action to end the metadata program rather than wait for congressional approval.
Senior administration officials, however, resisted such a plan.
“He’s got a responsibility as commander in chief,” a senior administration official told reporters, “to ensure we maintain the capabilities of this program.”