Obama Admin Seeks Revival of Lapsed NSA Spying Program

The National Security Agency's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah.

The National Security Agency's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. Rick Bowmer/AP File Photo

NSA halted its domestic phone surveillance program earlier this week, but the bulk collection is expected to soon be reinstalled, despite passage this week of the USA Freedom Act.

Just one day after President Obama signed a comprehensive surveillance-reform bill into law, the administration already is seeking the legal means to revive the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. phone records.

An administration official confirmed Wednesday the process to renew the program—which lapsed this week after the expiration of parts of the Patriot Act—was underway, and that an application to restart it would soon be supplied to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"We are taking the appropriate steps to obtain a Court order reauthorizing the program," Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi said in a statement. "If such an order is granted, we'll make an appropriate announcement at that time as we have with respect to past renewal applications.

The move is expected, as the USA Freedom Act—a comprehensive surveillance-reform bill signed into law on Tuesday after passing the Senate—calls for a six-month transition period under which the NSA will shift away from its bulk collection regime. After the transition, the NSA will instead rely on phone companies to keep call records and provide them to the government on a more targeted, as-needed basis after obtaining approval from the FISA Court.

The renewal is intended to be temporary in order to fill the six-month transition gap created under the Freedom Act.

The mass surveillance practice, exposed two years ago by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, shut down earlier this week, officials said, when the Patriot Act's Section 215 was allowed to expire amid an impasse in the Senate.

Critics of the once-secret program contend that the administration should refrain from restarting mass surveillance on Americans' phone records, given that it has been deemed ineffective by a presidential review group and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The bulk collection is also on unsure legal footing, they have argued, after a federal appeals court ruled it illegal last month and said most members of Congress never intended for its creation under the Patriot Act.

"I see no reason for the executive branch to restart bulk collection, even for a few months, and I hope they will not attempt to do so," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, in a statement. "This illegal dragnet surveillance violated Americans' rights for fourteen years without making our country any safer, and the administration should leave it on the ash heap of history."

If the FISA Court grants another order allowing the bulk records to continue, it could be subject to legal challenges from privacy groups, who may contend the Freedom Act does not explicitly reauthorize the program.

The administration did not immediately respond when asked whether the new FISA Court request being prepared would seek approval for 90 days of phone metadata collection, as previous orders have granted, or if it would fill the entire six-month transition window. It also did not say whether the order being sought would be subject to the new Freedom Act's amicus provision, which asks the FISA Court to consult with a panel of privacy experts during its decisions.