WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) -- The U.S. government is considering enlarging its National Security Agency's (NSA) controversial collection of Americans' phone records -- an unintended consequence of lawsuits seeking to stop the surveillance program, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
A number of government lawyers involved in lawsuits over the NSA phone-records program believe federal-court rules on preserving evidence related to lawsuits require the agency to stop routinely destroying older phone records, the newspaper said, quoting officials familiar with the discussions.
As a result, the government would expand the database beyond its original intent, at least while the lawsuits are active.
According to the newspaper, no final decision has been made to preserve the data and that even if a decision is made to retain the information, it would be held only for the purpose of litigation and not be subject to searches.
The government currently collects phone records on millions of Americans in a vast database that it can mine for links to terror suspects. The database includes records of who called whom, when they called and for how long.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered senior officials to end the government storage of such data and find another place to store the records-possibly with the phone companies who log the calls. Under the goals outlined by Obama last month, the government would still be able to search the call logs with a court order, but would no longer possess and control them.
NSA Director Keith Alexander said the program, if it had existed in 2001, would have uncovered the Sept. 11 plot.
Critics of the program, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have sued the government, saying it violates the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
Patrick Toomey, an ACLU lawyer, was quoted by the newspaper as saying that no one in the government has raised with his group the possibility the lawsuits may actually expand the database they call unconstitutional.
"It's difficult to understand why the government would consider taking this position, when the relief we've requested in the lawsuit is a purge of our data," he said.
The phone records program is overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and any move to keep data past the five-year period may require the blessing of that court.
A federal judge in New York ruled the program is legal, while a Washington D.C. judge ruled it almost certainly illegal. There are several other pending cases, and other lawsuits could yet be filed.