White House still won???t shut down NSA telephone data collection program

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More than a year after President Barack Obama vowed to curb domestic spying by American intelligence agencies, Congress and the Obama administration have taken only minor steps towards those promised reforms, according to a new report from inside the administration.

And despite having the authority to shut down the Nation Security Agency???s telephone metadata collection programs, the White House continues to punt the issue to Congress.

???It should be noted that the Administration can end the bulk telephone records program at any time, without congressional involvement,??? wrote the members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent bipartisan agency within the executive branch that assesses the federal government???s efforts to fight terrorism while balancing the protection of civil liberties.

The group published a report last week highlighting the failures of Congress and the White House to act on a series of reform proposals over the past year.

This week, Obama quietly outlined some additional reforms to how the intelligence agencies operate. But those changes do not affect the telephone metadata collection program at the center of the domestic spying scandal since it was first exposed by Ed Snowden in June 2013.

Those changes will limit how America spies on foreign leaders and other dignitaries, the New York Times reported, but civil libertarian groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation said they did not go far enough.

???The power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do,??? Obama said during a high-profile speech in January 2014 in which he promised to make changes to how the NSA and other intelligence agencies collect information on the public.

Soon afterward, the PCLOB issued a list of recommendations to the White House. Right at the top of the list: ending the telephone data collection program.

A year later, the bulk collection of telephone records continues, as does the secret court system that is supposed to act as a check on intelligence agencies??? access to data about specific people. Most of the other suggestions offered last year by the PCLOB have been left to languish in Washington as well.

???Many of the recommendations directed at the Administration have yet to be fully satisfied, with the Administration having taken only partial steps, at most, toward implementing them,??? the PCLOB concluded last week.

Obama has never favored shuttering the NSA???s telephone data records program, but he has called for Congress to pass legislation that would place limits on what could be collected and analyzed.

A series of so-called NSA reform bills have worked their way through congressional committees during the past year, but none have reached the president???s desk. Many of the legislative proposals have been panned by civil libertarian groups for leaving the country???s intelligence agencies with too much authority over how much telephone and Internet data they can sift through.

The bill that came the closest to passing last year ??? the ironically titled USA Freedom Act ??? would have shut down the NSA telephone metadata program but would have required carriers to keep records of their users for law enforcement to use.

The bill failed to clear the U.S. Senate???s 60-vote threshold in November. At the time, congressional leaders said they would try again to pass the bill, or a similar one, in the new year. But the White House has been largely silent on the matter, with Obama ignoring the domestic spying controversy in last month???s State of the Union address.

Congressional gridlock might provide the best chance to shut down the NSA???s phone records program. Without reauthorization, it would have to be closed in June when some elements of the Patriot Act are due to expire.

Unless the White House takes unilateral action before that, it will face a major congressional battle, wrote Mark Rumold, staff attorney for EFF, after the president released his newest set of reforms this week.

???President Obama still has time in office to make this right, and he???s got ample power to rein in NSA overreach without Congress lifting a finger,??? Rumold said.