Civil liberties advocates cheered President Barack Obama's step on Thursday toward ending the National Security Agency's bulk collection of telephone records. But they also warned the move could obscure more intrusive programs still being carried out in secret.
In a step telegraphed earlier this week, Obama said in a Thursday statement he believes "the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk."
"I am confident that this approach can provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the information they need to keep us safe while addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised," he added.
Obama's still-developing plan calls for the NSA to stop collecting bulk records on who Americans call, when and for how long. Instead, that data will be sought from phone companies only when necessary for terrorism investigations, and after a special surveillance court's approval.
Whatever shape it ultimately takes, Obama's proposal will still need congressional approval. The administration has rejected a suggestion made by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) to simply stop seeking court reauthorization of the program. Friday is the next deadline for seeking court reauthorization.
Nevertheless, the plan represents a stunning turnaround for an administration whose officials -- up to and including the president -- have called bulk call records collection legal and necessary. When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations were first made public in June 2013, Obama offered a full-throated defense of call records collection. As recently as a January speech, the president was grappling to preserve the program in some form by requiring phone companies to hold data longer, or by establishing a third-party group to collect the call data.
But as two factions in Congress, whose memberships cut across political lines, battle over whether to end the call records program or to expand the NSA's powers further, the president may have foreseen gridlock stalling reauthorization ahead of a statutory mid-2015 expiration date.
"I suspect that there is some sort of political calculation going on here about fighting to the death [over the program]," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. Her group has praised the president's proposal as a step in the right direction, but Richardson nonetheless warned of "much bigger programs going on that are flying under the radar."
The bulk collection of American telephone records has aroused the most bipartisan ire since Snowden's leaks exposed it -- but as Snowden's documents have also shown, the NSA operates many other programs that collect data both domestically and abroad.
The president did not address other collection activities going on under the same section of the Patriot Act, which could range over a wide record of business records, from product sales to library histories. Nor did the president touch on other authorities that could be used to collect the actual content of Americans' communications, or American phone metadata offshore.
"[The plan] satisfies the optics of reform ... without looking at some of the other authorities that are far more intrusive," said Katherine Maher, advocacy director for the global digital rights group Access.
Even when it comes to just the NSA phone records collection, many question marks still remain.
"In some ways I feel a little bit frustrated at the very vague information we have gotten from the White House on the proposal," said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's liberty and national security program.
The NSA is in possession of years' worth of Americans' phone records, in bulk. What happens to that data going forward is unknown.
And in the future, if the administration plan is put into place, it is also unknown what will happen to phone call data that the NSA requests from the telecommunication companies and places into the agency's "corporate store," over which it asserts free reign.
For these companies, important private-sector stakeholders in any changes to the NSA program, the potential effects of the new proposal are unclear. They fear being forced to reformat the data they already keep on customer calls, or having to store it longer.
Verizon General Counsel Randel Milch blogged a statement applauding the president's suggestions, but stressed that Congress and the administration would need to "get the details of this important effort right."
This article has been updated to clarify details about the NSA's data collection, and the potential impacts of the new proposal.