The Justice Department has asked a federal court for permission to indefinitely preserve phone records collected by the National Security Agency as it fights lawsuits challenging a secret U.S. surveillance program.
In court papers made public today, Justice Department lawyers asked to retain the records beyond the five years permitted by an order of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The government has an obligation to store older records that might prove relevant to lawsuits seeking to halt the data-collection program, the Justice Department lawyers wrote.
The NSA's storage of phone records in vast databases has emerged as one of the most contentious issues for the government stemming from the documents leaked by former security contractor Edward Snowden. Civil liberties groups argue that such data collection violates their privacy. Government officials say the data is useful in combating terrorism.
Among those suing the U.S. government over the program's legality are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
In the court papers filed yesterday and made public today, Justice Department lawyers told the intelligence surveillance court that NSA analysts would not have access to the older records. A more limited retention of the data wouldn’t be possible, they added, because there was no way to know what would become relevant in later litigation.
“This is just a distraction,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in an e-mail. “We don’t have any objection to the government deleting these records. While they’re at it, they should delete the whole database.”
President Obama, responding to the international uproar over NSA spying programs, said last month that he would require judicial review of requests to query the govenrment's databases. He also ordered the Justice Department and intelligence officials to devise a way to take storage of that data out of the government's hands. Their recommendations are due March 28.