By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has indicated to legislators that he plans to seek little change in a controversial National Security Agency program which collects masses of raw data on the telephone calls of Americans, congressional sources said.
Two sources familiar with what Obama told members of Congress he met with on Thursday said the president left legislators with the impression that he wants the NSA to continue to collect bulk "metadata" on U.S. telephone use, which includes which numbers are called, what time calls are made, and how long they last.
Obama met 16 lawmakers at the White House on Thursday to discuss reforming how U.S. intelligence agencies collect telephone and internet data after damaging revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama will announce decisions on reforms in a speech on January 17. White House officials have said that when he goes public with his proposals for NSA reforms, the president is likely to announce measures to curb or restrict U.S. spying on foreign leaders, upgrade intelligence sharing with allies, and perhaps allow privacy advocates to appear routinely before the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
"The president's been clear throughout this review process that we will not harm our national security or our ability to face global threats. And our intelligence gathering activities are directly related to our ability to face those global threats and protect our national security," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Of all media disclosures based on leaks from Snowden, the revelation that NSA engages in bulk collection of domestic U.S. phone call metadata triggered the biggest uproar from Americans who value their privacy.
The sources familiar with Thursday's meeting said Obama left legislators with the impression that he was leaning against a proposal by a presidential review panel to modify the metadata collection program by requiring that private parties, rather than NSA, record and store the phone data.
The presidential panel, whose members included former White House counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke and former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, raised questions about the value of metadata collection - saying it had made only a "modest" contribution to national security - and suggested that the data should be held by phone companies or some kind of new non-profit group.
When asked on Friday about Obama's plans on metadata, a White House official said that the president had not made a final decision on the issue and had not conveyed such a decision to groups he met with this week, including members of Congress.
However, critics of this plan say it would be expensive and could slow down critical counter-terrorism operations. In an interview with National Public Radio on Friday, John Inglis, the NSA's outgoing director, described metadata collection as an "insurance policy" against future attacks by militants.
Roger Cressey, a former White House counter-terrorism official under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said it would not be in the president's interest to take a strong public position on the metadata issue.
Federal district courts recently issued conflicting rulings on the legality of collecting Americans' phone records. "Why would the administration put any (metadata) reforms in place that potentially could prejudice future rulings by the Supreme Court on these programs?" Cressey said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland)