WASHINGTON, March 25 (UPI) -- The two top members of the House Intelligence Committee announced the introduction of new legislation meant to halt the bulk collection of cell phone data by the National Security Agency, while strongly defending the existing program's usefulness and legality.
“We think that we have found a way to end the government’s bulk collection of telephone metadata and still provide a mechanism to protect the Untied States and track those terrorists who are calling into the United States to commit acts of terror,” said Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., unveiling the bill Tuesday.
Rogers emphasized that he and other members of the committee supported the program as is, but were aware they had a "perception issue" following revelations from leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and that the changes were meant to prevent any potential future abuses.
“Basically what we are doing is we’re listening to the American people,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Maryland, the committee's ranking member.
The bill, which is co-sponsored by six Republicans and three Democrats, would require the NSA to seek court approval before accessing data held by phone companies. It would have to pass the "RAS test" -- that it has a "reasonable and articulable suspicion" before the intelligence committee could follow through on a foreign number calling into the United States.
Phone companies would still be required to hold the call metadata -- phone number and duration of the call, only -- for 18 months, but the NSA would no longer store the data at all.
The bill comes a day after President Obama signaled his decision Monday to seek moving the storage of phone metadata from the government to the phone companies.
Ruppersberger said the new legislation was preferable to an alternative, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., that would require the existence of an ongoing investigation for the government to be able to access phone data, which had stalled in committee.
"In my opinion, the Sensenbrenner bill makes our country less safe," he said. In the new plan, Ruppersberger said, "the courts are going to be involved right away. But we have to have a flexible system so we can move right away" to address potential threats.
Rogers said he believes his legislation has the support to pass both the House and Senate, because the issue was simply too important to be ignored.
"We need the program to function," he said. "This is a critical program for saving the lives of Americans, and we believe that the other bills that are out there do not meet that standard of being able to protect Americans."