Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D, 2nd District, represents… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
WASHINGTON — — Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is proposing to end the bulk collection of telephone data by the National Security Agency — the program at the center of the controversy over the reach of government spying.
Ruppersberger would discontinue the government's mass collection of phone data, which has been heavily criticized by privacy rights groups, and instead require intelligence agencies to get court orders on a case-by-case basis before they mine information held by telecommunication companies.
President Barack Obama has also proposed taking the collection of bulk phone data out of the government's hands, but Ruppersberger is the first leader of a congressional intelligence committee to call formally for ending the government's collection of so-called metadata.
His proposal, which he plans to announce Thursday, fills in some details on how a replacement of the current system might work.
"It's changing the way we do things," the Baltimore County lawmaker said in an interview Wednesday. "There's a lot of misperception out there so we hope that this would turn it around."
The move reflects a recognition that the controversial surveillance program is likely due for some sort of an overhaul soon anyway. In addition to Obama's proposal, legislators in both parties have been calling for changes since leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden drew attention to the data collection.
Ruppersberger, a strong supporter of the NSA in a solidly Democratic state, has had to walk a political tightrope on the issue. Critics say he and other intelligence leaders failed to exert sufficient oversight of the agency's activities.
Ruppersberger's district is home to the NSA's headquarters at Fort Meade and much of its workforce.
"A lot of the people in the NSA have been really concerned and upset about the allegations that they're breaking the law or they're listening to people [on the phone] — and that's just not the case," Ruppersberger said. "But that's the perception. When you're in politics, you deal with perception."
Privacy advocates offered mixed assessments of Ruppersberger's idea. Most said they'd need to see more detail.
Harley Geiger, senior counsel of the Freedom, Security and Surveillance Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said it was a positive development that Ruppersberger had proposed taking the bulk data out of the government's hands, and that phone providers would not be required to retain data for an extended period of time.
But he said significant questions remain about the standard the government would have to meet to access records from telecommunications firms.
"The limits of the authority that Ruppersberger is proposing need to be clearly spelled out in this process," Geiger said. "One thing that we've seen is laws and legislation that look clear that then were twisted."
The NSA has acknowledged collecting data on phone calls made by millions of Americans, such as the numbers dialed and the duration, but says it does not listen to the calls or record the content. Since January, if the agency has wanted to search its database of "telephony metadata," it must get approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Under Ruppersberger's proposal, the NSA would not have access to the data in the first place without going through the court. Instead, phone companies would keep it. The government could seek data going back 18 months, because companies are already required by the Federal Communications Commission to retain the information that long for billing purposes.
It's less clear what would happen if intelligence analysts wanted older data. Ruppersberger stressed that telecommunications companies would not be required to retain data for longer than 18 months. They could voluntarily enter into a contract with the government to provide older data — but it's not clear whether any of them would do so.
Ruppersberger would require the government to meet a standard of "reasonable articulable suspicion" that a phone number was linked to terrorists to get at the data.
Advocates have long argued that that standard can be a moving target.
Obama spoke in January of ending the government's collection of phone data but ensuring that the agency keeps the tools it needs to gather intelligence on potential terrorists and thwart attacks. Administration officials are expected to give him options this month for replacing the program.
Many details of Ruppersberger's concept are murky; the congressman did not release a draft of the legislation.
Michelle Richardson, who follows national security for the American Civil Liberties Union, said his concept would be a "step in the right direction" — but also said it addresses "only a tiny slice of what's been revealed" about the agency's activities.
It's also not clear whether the proposal has any shot in Congress.