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NSA's Bulk Collection Of Phone Data Continues, Intelligence Review Says


President Obama has promised to protect Americans from government surveillance. This time last year, he outlined a series of reforms to the way the NSA scoops up phone and Internet communications. And he ordered the heads of all U.S. spy agencies to report back on whether those reforms were taking place. That report is now out. As NPR's David Welna found, some things have changed. But one big program is still up and running.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: When President Obama spoke about reforming the nation's eavesdropping policies last year, it was only a few months after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's revelations about top-secret surveillance programs. Most controversial - an NSA program known as Section 215 that's been scooping up the phone records of Americans and keeping them for five years. Obama promised that would change.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata.

WELNA: The president added this would not be simple, and he was right. The review released yesterday says the NSA's bulk collection of phone data continues. It blames Congress for not ending the practice. But according to James Dempsey, who's a member of a congressionally appointed privacy board, the president has ignored the board's recommendation that he end the program himself.

JAMES DEMPSEY: The president has the power to end it without any congressional action. And yet this program, which we found has no statutory basis and which is not very effective - this program continues today.

WELNA: A bipartisan bill called the USA Freedom Act would have stopped the NSA from holding Americans' phone data. But it stalled last year in the Senate. It may have even less of a chance this year. North Carolina's Richard Burr chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. He does not want the NSA's data dragnet to end, especially not after events like the recent attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.

SENATOR RICHARD BURR: Bulk collection is absolutely crucial to the security of the country. And bulk collection, as with Paris, is a great example. Without bulk collection, without metadata, you don't have the ability to run information that you get in real-time and determine whether there's a threat here at home.

WELNA: But privacy advocates say public attitudes still value privacy over security. Gregory Nojeim is a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

GREGORY NOJEIM: Public polling continues to indicate that Americans think that the government shouldn't be collecting records about their phone calls when there's no information that ties them to a terrorist group or a terrorist act. That's what's happening today.

WELNA: What's happening the June 1 - the NSA's authorization under the Patriot Act for collecting and storing Americans' phone records is set to expire. Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy says he does not expect Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act that he sponsored last year, ending bulk collection. But he does hope lawmakers won't simply renew it.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: What I worry about is that as we get closer to the deadline, some who don't want anything - they might get their wish.

WELNA: If the phone data program does survive, it would mean that, despite the Snowden revelations, very little would have changed. Again, James Dempsey of the privacy board.

DEMPSEY: No surveillance program has been ended as a result of the leaks and of the controversy and debate over the past year-and-a-half.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.