President Barack Obama met with congressional leaders Thursday as he prepares to announce changes to the oversight and operations of the National Security Agency, which could include using executive power to end the spy agency's bulk collection of phone and Internet records.
Obama is reviewing the recommendations of a five-member advisory panel appointed by the White House, which concluded Dec. 18 the dragnet collection of American phone records "should be terminated as soon as reasonably practicable."
"The current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty," the advisory report said.
Obama has publicly defended NSA surveillance programs, but plans to announce sometime in January which of the recommendations he will support.
Thursday's White House meeting included critics of the data collection program including Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who has introduced the Freedom Act in the House to end the spying program.
Congress has increased scrutiny of the NSA in recent months, but politicians remain divided on the key issue of whether to end the agency's bulk collection of phone and Internet records. The White House meeting also included the congressional leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, all of whom support the NSA's bulk data collection. The White House's December report made "some constructive recommendations" to reform the NSA, according to a joint statement from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., along with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
"These include measures to increase transparency of the U.S. intelligence community's collection programs, improve the security clearance process, and enhance whistleblower protections for intelligence community employees, many of which the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have previously addressed in legislation reported by one or both committees," the four lawmakers said in a joint statement in December. "However, a number of recommendations in the report should not be adopted by Congress, starting with those based on the misleading conclusion that the NSA's metadata program is 'not essential to preventing attacks.'"
White House counsel is also scheduled to meet Thursday with privacy advocates from groups including the Center for Democracy & Technology and the New America Foundation.
Obama also discussed privacy concerns with Wednesday with members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that he created. The group may not complete its report on the telephone metadata program before early February, possibly after Obama announces his proposals for the NSA, according to a release by the group.
Appointing a privacy advocate to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to weigh in on surveillance requests is among the recommendations made by the White House review group that Obama is likely to make, since it has also been proposed by numerous bills in Congress that would reform the NSA.
The advisory report recommended shifting the bulk data collection duties from the NSA to digital companies, which the New America Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union said could actually weaken privacy if it required companies to collect more consumer information that could be accessed in civil court cases along with national security requests.
During a press conference in December Obama discussed concerns about the data collection program saying, "There may be a better way of skinning the cat."