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Obama’s new plan for the NSA better balances the needs of security and privacy

President Obama had to do something drastic to ease American concern following the outrage that resulted from the phone records fiasco.

The National Security Agency had been collecting millions of phone records from private citizens on the off chance some needle in that haystack might have links to terrorism. So far, the culling of such data has not produced links to terrorism. But it has opened a wound too deep for the president to ignore. Something had to be done.

The Obama administration on Thursday formally proposed far-reaching overhaul of the NSA’s bulk phone records program. The president is planning to end the concerns about how the government keeps records known as metadata.

The information will need to be collected in a manner that not only serves the interest of intelligence services in its fight against terrorism, but also assures the American public that they are not being arbitrarily spied upon. This is not always easy to achieve.

Under the proposal which was first reported by the New York Times, the NSA would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. Instead, the bulk records would remain in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than normal for them. The NSA could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new type of court order.

Meantime, Obama seems to think that he might have stumbled upon a way to get the agency to collect call records in bulk while preserving the program’s abilities. Again, this is not an easy goal to achieve, which is why the president has instructed Justice Department and intelligence officials to devise a plan by today. That is when the current court order authorizing the program expires.

The administration has bought itself some time by asking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the program as it exists for at least one more 90-day cycle, which is a far cry from the NSA’s current practice of retaining phone data for five years.

Amid all of the revelations on how the government’s intelligence community gathers information, the phone data collection struck the most Orwellian note. The program is not automatically defensible, but one has to weigh issues of safety versus privacy, so much have things changed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The psychology of a newfound vulnerability explains, in part, how the once-secret call records program, sometimes known as the 215 program, after Section 215 of the Patriot Act, could have existed. The effort by the Obama administration to curb some of the excesses of the program while maintaining it still lacks important details but is a step in the right direction.

The administration’s proposal will be presented alongside others in Congress, including legislation developed by leaders of the House Intelligence Committee that would have the court authorize the program but allow the NSA to issue subpoenas for specific phone records without prior judicial approval. The absence in the House committee’s proposal of a judicial role is troubling.

Leaks by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden led the nation to the revelation about the collection of phone data. Now we know. The president’s proposal, along with others, is the first step in figuring out how to balance security and privacy.