WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama asked Congress on Thursday to end quickly the government's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, which could be a big ask for lawmakers who don't often move quickly without a looming deadline.
Responding to public outrage over the National Security Agency program, the Obama administration came up with a new program that it says would address privacy concerns and preserve the government's ability to fight terrorism.
Under the proposal, Congress has three months to draft and pass a measure to end the bulk collection program. The Obama administration has asked the court to reauthorize that collection for another three months, while lawmakers consider an alternative. Under the current system, the government gets court approval every three months to collect all call records from certain phone companies daily.
The real looming deadline for action is June 1, 2015. That's when the section of a law that has been used to authorize the program is set to expire. The Obama administration could continue to seek court approval to collect the phone records five more times before the law expires.
Obama could have ended the bulk collection program now, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a proponent of changing NSA surveillance programs. The administration said it sought reauthorization for another 90 days to maintain its counterterrorism capabilities until a new program was in place.
Congress has been debating what to do about this once-classified program since last June, when former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed details about the massive surveillance operation. Dozens of bills have been introduced, and the issue has caused divisions even within political parties.
Finding consensus on how to change the program could take most, if not all, of the 430 days that Congress actually has. During that time period, many members of Congress are up for re-election, and the primary campaign for the next presidential race will be underway.
Until now, many thought Congress would most likely let the phone records collection program expire next year.
"I think that the administration was under the gun to come up with something that might satisfy those who want to see the end of the program, such that they could avoid that result in 2015," said Kevin Bankston of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.