Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, plans to introduce bipartisan legislation Tuesday that would end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. telephone and email data — the surveillance program that has drawn fire from privacy advocates, civil libertarians and some lawmakers since it was revealed last year.
Under a proposal developed by Ruppersberger and Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, the government would have to rely on records kept by private telecommunications companies for information now gathered by the National Security Agency.
Before the government could see those records, it would have to satisfy a secret federal court that it had established procedures that ensured that it only would obtain information associated with legitimate terrorist and foreign intelligence targets. It also would need to satisfy the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that it had established limits on how it could handle and retain the information.
With court approval, the government could direct companies to turn over records. In each case, after issuing its request, it would have to submit evidence supporting its request to the court for review. If the court disapproved, it could order the government to purge any information it received.
"We're going to make sure the court reviews every single, individual case," Ruppersberger said Monday.
President Barack Obama discussed ending the bulk collection of telephone records during a speech in January. The New York Times reported late Monday that Obama was poised to unveil legislation that would do that and also make permanent the three-month-old requirement that the government receive prior approval from the court each time it wanted to query a private company's records.
The bill to be announced Tuesday by Rogers and Ruppersberger would not require that prior approval.
Michelle Richardson, who follows national security for the American Civil Liberties Union, called it "a step backward."
"Even the president himself, on the advice of the NSA director and the attorney general and all of these national security folks, says, 'No, we can go to the court every time and ask them for the order at the front end,' " Richardson said. "So there's no reason to short-circuit that process."
Ruppersberger, whose district includes the NSA and many of its workers, has defended the agency's collection of "telephony metadata" — the dates and times of calls, numbers dialed, and the durations of conversations — since former contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of the program.
The NSA, which is headquartered at Fort Meade, has acknowledged collecting the metadata on calls made by millions of Americans. But it says it does not listen to the calls or record the content.
Ruppersberger said his legislation strikes a balance between individual privacy and national security. He said he was confident it would allow investigators to obtain the information they need to protect the nation from future attacks, and he hoped it would alleviate concerns about government surveillance.
He describes the bill in an op-ed piece in s Tuesday's Baltimore Sun. With court approval, the government could direct the telecommunications companies to query their databases for the information it seeks. The government would not be able to review the conversations themselves.
The Federal Communications Commission already requires telecommunications companies to keep telephone records for 18 months. Ruppersberger's legislation would not extend that period.
The legislation also would ban the bulk collection of e-mail and Internet metadata, firearm sales records, library records, medical records, tax returns, educational records and other sensitive personal records.
It would require the government to release all significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decisions or issue unclassified summaries of their key points. Court arguments, deliberations and decisions now are secret.
The bill's prospects in Congress are unclear. Ruppersberger said he consulted with the White House while developing the language. It would require the approval of the full House and Senate to become law.
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