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Out Of White House And Congress, Two Proposals To Change NSA Practices


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Public outrage over NSA surveillance programs that collect data about Americans is forcing some big change. Documents revealing the security agency's methods have been trickling out in the press for months, thanks to leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

SIEGEL: One of the big revelations is that the government secretly collects records of phone calls made by millions of U.S. citizens. And in the last 24 hours, the White House and Congress have floated separate proposals to modify that practice. They've put the onus on the phone companies to keep those records. We'll hear what that means for the telecoms in a moment.

We begin our coverage, though, with NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers has been a staunch defender of the National Security Agency's collection of phone records. He says it's never been shown that the program, which operates under a provision of the Patriot Act, has ever been illegal or caused any harm. And yet, today, Rogers called a news conference at the Capitol to make this announcement.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: We think that we have found a way to end the government's bulk collection of telephone metadata.

WELNA: The problem isn't the program itself, Rogers said, it's what people think of that program.

ROGERS: The program we're dealing with today, which is what has the number one concern, we believe, in talking to our colleagues and talking to Americans, is that they just didn't have a comfort level with the NSA holding, in bulk, metadata, even though we had huge levels of protection. I do believe that privacy was better protected than you're going to see in the phone companies, but we didn't change any of that.

WELNA: Rogers said Edward Snowden, who's now a fugitive in Russia, had done the nation a disservice by revealing the collection program. But the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Maryland's Dutch Ruppersberger, acknowledged that if it were not for Snowden, they would not be revamping the NSA's program.

REPRESENTATIVE DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER: After Snowden, there was a lot of mistrust and we have to deal with that. As elected officials representing our constituents, the perception was there.

WELNA: The committee's proposal is straightforward. Instead of the NSA collecting phone records, phone call data on specific individuals would be sought from the phone companies under programs approved first by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. There would later be a judicial review to insure that the records sought were justified.

Today at The Hague, President Obama acknowledged the White House is also proposing to end bulk collection of phone records. He said he recognized people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The second thing the people were concerned about is making sure that not only is a judge overseeing the overall program, but also that a judge is looking at each individual inquiry that's made into a database, and this new plan that's been presented to me does that.

WELNA: But the House intelligence panel's plan does not do that. Harley Geiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology is among the civil liberties advocates who call that a fatal flaw in the House plan.

HARLEY GEIGER: The intelligence agencies would get the court to approve an overall program of surveillance and approve record requests after the fact, after the surveillance has taken place. But the intelligence agencies would be able to demand the records from companies without a court approving them beforehand.

WELNA: Geiger also worries that the White House proposal may eliminate bulk collection only of phone call metadata. Other competing proposals in Congress offer more protections. Rogers hopes those differences will be ironed out.

ROGERS: We're going to get there. You know, hopefully by the end of this week, it will come to even a more fulsome agreement on how to move forward.

WELNA: Bulk collection is to continue until this summer unless Congress acts earlier to end it. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.