Clipping the NSA


It’s way past time, but the Obama Administration is finally moving to end the National Security Agency’s drastic overreach in collecting phone records in bulk. That program ostensibly has protected Americans from the threat of terrorism, while it has affronted principles of a free society.

President Obama endorsed a plan that he asked intelligence officials and the Justice Department to develop. It must go to Congress, where alternative measures are proposed, including a bipartisan plan from the House Intelligence Committee.

Mr. Obama is poised to deliver what he has said he wants: to get the NSA out of bulk collection of phone records, while retaining the program’s capacity to probe possibly sinister contacts. The NSA secretly scooped up records of innocent Americans in its vast electronic trawl and kept them for five years.

Balancing national security and personal privacy won’t be easy. Not all the details have been reported, but in essence the administration’s plan calls for phone records to be kept by telephone companies instead of the NSA, generally for no longer than 18 months.

If the security agency wanted to obtain records of callers linked to a suspect, up to two calling links, it would need the approval of a judge from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Yet except in emergencies, such authorization already is routinely required.

Americans have reason to remain skeptical that the NSA and administration will reform themselves, when both have bought into excessive secrecy with scant regard for the rights of the public. The offending program was included in the Patriot Act by the George W. Bush administration, but the Obama Administration exploited it. Americans would be none the wiser if former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had not leaked thousands of documents.

Phone records are not the only data collected by government agencies in a manner that threatens liberty. In the meantime, Mr. Obama has extended the NSA phone program — which a federal judge has called probably unconstitutional — for another 90 days, to give Congress time to move. Even action that comes soon will be belated.