The White House has outlined plans to end the National Security Agency’s bulk telephone data collection on Americans, aiming to reassure the public following revelations about widespread surveillance.
The plan would keep the data outside of government while allowing access for national security reasons, officials said on Tuesday.
Key US lawmakers welcomed the proposal, and one group put forward reform legislation along the same lines, with bipartisan support.
President Barack Obama – in The Hague for a nuclear security summit – called the White House plan “workable” and said it would protect privacy rights as well as national security.
“I am confident that it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers from a terrorist attack, but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people had raised,” he said.
A senior administration official said earlier that Obama had considered the results of a study he ordered in January into how the National Security Agency (NSA) could protect national interests without storing citizens’ private data.
The comments came after reports in the New York Times and Washington Post that a major reform of data collection by US intelligence agencies was imminent.
The Times reported that the 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 that the NSA would obtain specific records with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.
A trove of documents leaked by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sparked an outcry in the US and abroad about the vast capabilities of America’s intelligence programs.
Officials have defended the methods as necessary to thwart terror attacks, but the extent of the NSA’s activities on home soil has divided opinion in the US.
Snowden, in a statement issued through the American Civil Liberties Union, said on Tuesday he now sees a “turning point” in the effort to reform NSA surveillance.
“President Obama has now confirmed that these mass surveillance programs, kept secret from the public and defended out of reflex rather than reason, are in fact unnecessary and should be ended,” the statement said.
James Lewis, a senior fellow who follows national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Obama proposal appeared to be “a cosmetic change” to NSA authority.
“This will pacify domestic critics, but we don’t know how it will play overseas,” Lewis told AFP.
“If it’s done right, there will be no impact on national security.”
Joseph Wippl, director of graduate studies at Boston University’s Department of International Relations and a 30-year CIA operations officer, said the measure could allay public fears about NSA surveillance, but added: “There is nothing here which protects foreign nationals, which is the way it has always been.”
Some said the proposals unveiled so far did not go far enough.
Harley Geiger at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group, said any reforms “must end bulk collection authority entirely, for all types of records, and replace it with surveillance directed at specific targets”.
In Congress, a group of legislators unveiled a bipartisan-backed bill to end bulk collection of telephone, email, and internet metadata.
Senate Intelligence Committee chief Dianne Feinstein said her panel would review the House bill as well as the president’s proposal.
“I have said before that I am open to reforming the call records program as long as any changes meet our national security needs and address privacy concerns, ” she said.
Meanwhile, congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee, disclosed to reporters that the data obtained by Snowden had been passed on to authorities in Russia, where he has been given in asylum.
“Ninety-five per cent of the information he took, by the way, was related to military, both tactical and strategic information that we now believe is in the hands of the Russians,” Rogers said.
“A lot of that information benefits the Russians. There’s also information in there we believe benefits the Chinese military as well.”