WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has told allies and lawmakers it is considering reining in a variety of National Security Agency practices overseas, including holding White House reviews of the world leaders the agency is monitoring, forging a new accord with Germany for a closer intelligence relationship and minimizing collection on some foreigners.
But for now, President Barack Obama and his top advisers have concluded that there is no workable alternative to the bulk collection of huge quantities of “metadata,” including records of all telephone calls made inside the United States.
Instead, the administration has hinted it may hold that information for only three years instead of five while it seeks new technologies that would permit it to search the records of telephone and Internet companies, rather than collect the data in bulk in government computers. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, head of the NSA, has told industry officials that developing the new technology would take at least three years.
But protests from business executives, who told Obama last week at a White House meeting that they feared the NSA revelations would lead to billions of dollars in lost business in Europe and Asia, has forced a rethinking inside the White House.
In testimony, Alexander and James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, have shown little willingness to make major changes, apart from agreeing to more oversight and public disclosure of some Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decisions. The White House has pressed for more. Nonetheless, the actions contemplated inside the administration seem unlikely to quell the protests in Europe or assuage critics at home. The sharpest public criticism of the NSA from within the administration has come from one of the chief clients for its intelligence reports: Secretary of State John Kerry. “The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there,” Kerry said last week. “Some of these actions have reached too far.”
A senior administration official said Kerry’s “automatic pilot” reference “went beyond our talking points,” but added that the president agreed and “has already made some decisions,” which have not been announced.
Alexander’s deputy, John C. Inglis, told Congress last week that there was no satisfying alternative to a government library of calls and, seemingly by extension, text messages and many Internet searches. “It needs to be the whole haystack,” Inglis said.