WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama put forward his plan Thursday to end US government bulk collection of Americans' telephone records, aiming to defuse a controversy over mass surveillance.
"I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk," Obama said, as he unveiled a formal proposal to reform procedures for the National Security Agency.
In a statement, Obama said his plan would require telephone companies to hold data for the same length of time they currently do, while allowing government agencies to access it with court approval.
Obama unveiled the plan amid an outcry over the NSA's mass surveillance capabilities, described in documents leaked by fugitive former contractor Edwards Snowden.
Obama said his plan, which needs congressional approval, would still allow the government to conduct surveillance to thwart terrorist attacks but would make changes to address the public's privacy concerns.
A White House statement said the NSA would need a court order to access the data, except in "an emergency situation," which it did not define.
The court would be asked to approve requests based on specific telephone numbers "based on national security concerns," the statement said.
"I believe this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence needs while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which the information is collected and held," Obama said.
The president said that because the new plan would not be in place by a March 28 expiration, he will seek a 90-day reauthorization of the existing programme with some modifications he ordered in January.
"I am confident that this approach can provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the information they need to keep us safe while addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised," Obama said.
A trove of documents leaked by fugitive former Snowden sparked an outcry in the United States and abroad about the vast capabilities of America's intelligence programs.
Officials have defended the methods as necessary to thwart terror attacks, but the extent of the NSA's activities on home soil has divided opinion in the United States.
In Congress, a group of lawmakers unveiled a bipartisan-backed bill this week to end bulk collection of telephone, email, and Internet metadata. Other bills are pending.