President Barack Obama is still grappling with key decisions on the future of the National Security Agency's phone collection program and the makeup of the secret court that approved the surveillance, lawmakers said Thursday following a 90-minute meeting at the White House.
Obama is expected to back tighter restrictions on foreign leader spying and also is considering a presidential commission's recommendation to strip the NSA of its ability to store telephone records from millions of Americans. The president could announce his final decisions as early as next week.
"The president and his administration are wrestling with the issues," Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and privacy advocate, said after the meeting. "It's fair to say that the next few weeks are going to be crunch time in terms of judgments being made in both the administration and the Congress."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the meeting focused in particular on the telephone data program and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The president also met this week with his top intelligence advisers, many of whom oppose changes to the NSA programs, and a review group appointed by Congress that is working on a report focused on the surveillance systems. Privacy advocates met with senior White House staff Thursday afternoon, and technology companies have been invited to a meeting on Friday.
The president's decisions will test how far he is willing to go in scaling back the NSA's broad surveillance powers. A presidential commission handed him more than 40 recommendations, many of which were more sweeping than expected. However, Obama is not obligated to accept any of the panel's proposals.
On Thursday, FBI Director James Comey told reporters he disagrees with a recommendation that would require the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve the bureau's use of national security letters. The letters are legal demands for information as part of an ongoing investigation, such as demanding the phone records of a suspected terrorist inside the U.S.
Opponents of involving the court in that process argue that it would make it more difficult for the FBI to conduct a national security investigation than to conduct a bank fraud case.
While Obama's upcoming decision is highly-anticipated, the White House indicated it may not be his final word on the matters. Obama spokesman Jay Carney said that while the president is likely to want some changes implemented right away, "there may be some that would require further review."
Congress will likely have to approve some of Obama's reforms, particularly if he makes changes to the phone collection program.
The presidential review group recommended not only moving storage of phone records back to the phone companies or a third party, but also mandating that the NSA obtain separate court approval for each record search. There would be exceptions in the case of national security emergencies.
It's unclear whether Obama will ultimately back the proposal or how quickly it could be carried out if he does.
People familiar with the White House review say Obama is expected to announce steps to rein in spying on friendly foreign leaders. That includes increased oversight of the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, a classified document that ranks U.S. intelligence-gathering priorities and is used to make decisions on scrutiny of foreign leaders. The presidential review board has recommended increasing the number of policy officials who help establish those priorities, and that could result in limits on surveillance of allies.
Documents released by former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. was monitoring the communications of several friendly foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The revelations outraged Merkel as well as other leaders, and U.S. officials say the disclosures have damaged Obama's relations around the world.
On Thursday, the senior lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee said a classified Pentagon report showed that Snowden stole approximately 1.7 million intelligence files. Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and the committee's chairman, said the vast majority of the material was related to the Defense Department and military operations.
Snowden faces espionage charges in the U.S. but has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.