If the Obama administration elects not to act before Friday evening, the National Security Agency could for the first time in years be unable to collect the phone records of millions of Americans.
It’s been but six weeks since NSA leaker Edward Snowden first started exposing the surveillance policies used by the United States government, and that month-and-a-half has provided President Barack Obama with a number of opportunities to engage the Congress and citizenry alike with regards to striking a proper balance between privacy and security. But while the recently disclosed surveillance programs could be stopped at any time, Friday allows the administration the opportunity to not renew one of those policies for the first time since the public began to pipe up.
Should the White House not seek to renew a top-secret directive from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court before 5 p.m. EST on Friday, the government’s ability to compel telecoms for private records will expire.
The routine collection of phone records — so-called “metadata” containing logs and other call-specific statistics — was the first NSA surveillance program exposed by Snowden. The 30-year-old former systems administrator provided the Guardian newspaper with documents suggesting the NSA is “is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon,” and an early June exposé they published quickly made that conduct a regular topic of conversation.
That blanketing court order, dated April 25, gave the government the unlimited authority to collect telephony metadata from Verizon up until Friday, July 19. House Intelligence Committee lawmakers Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) issued a statement in the interim admitting “these authorities [are] reviewed and approved by federal judges every 90 days,” and a Washington Post article published less than a week after the first Guardian piece acknowledged that 14 judges have reviewed the operations of the program since 2006.
In the wake of an unprecedented public backlash and condemnation across the globe, though, the Obama administration may move to not reauthorize the FISA order before it expires.
Spencer Ackerman, a national security writer for the Guardian who’s worked with Snowden’s leaks since they first surfaced, wrote Thursday that the White House is refusing to say whether it will seek to renew that FISA order, adding that officials reached for comment declined to discuss how they’d handle the looming deadline.
“On Thursday, the administration would not answer a question first posed by the Guardian six days ago about its intentions to continue, modify or discontinue the Verizon bulk-collection order,” wrote Ackerman. The White House, he wrote, referred queries to the Justice Department. The NSA, a FISA Court spokesperson and the office of the Director of National Intelligence all either refused to comment or differed to acknowledge their request altogether.
The largest indicator suggesting the White House will renew the order is purely precedent, as an interruption in the program would be a pause reportedly unheard of since the administration of George W. Bush. But that decision comes at a trying time for Obama and company this time around as America’s intelligence practices continue to be prodded by critics.
"By renewing the FISA court order, the Obama administration would reconfirm its support for the dragnet collection of telephone metadata, despite public outcry,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Wisconsin) told Ackerman.
“It's outrageous, and must be stopped immediately," added Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan).
But Rogers, Ruppersberger and others are adamant the NSA is doing the right thing in the war on terror, and James Litt, the general counsel for the Director of National Intelligence, defended the surveillance practices as recently as Friday morning.
“We are trying to find out what happens before it happens,” Litt said with regards to what some have called a dragnet approach to surveillance.
Others, however, have faith that the backlash brought on by Snowden’s leaks might be severe enough to trigger a change. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a long-time critic of the FISA Court, told the New York Times last week, “I have a feeling that the administration is getting concerned about the bulk phone records collection, and that they are thinking about whether to move administratively to stop it.”
“I think we are making a comeback,” he said.