WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (Xinhua) -- The Obama administration has asked a special court for permission to hold on to National Security Agency (NSA) phone records for longer than five years, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, describing it as "an unintended consequence of lawsuits seeking to stop the data- surveillance program."
The Justice Department, in a filing made public Wednesday, said it needs to hold onto the older records that would otherwise need to be purged as evidence in lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and other civil organizations, the newspaper reported.
In a request to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the older data would continue to be held, but NSA analysts would not be allowed to search it, the report said.
Under the current system, the database is purged of phone records more than five years old.
Last year, the EFF and many other groups filed lawsuit against the Obama administration for collecting phone metadata in bulk.
The newspaper reported on the possibility of this request last week, citing some officials' concerns that these records could prove relevant in the cases.
Since the start of revelations about NSA surveillance last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the phone-records program has sparked widespread controversy. Some lawmakers and government officials have defended it as critical to fighting terrorism, while others argue it amounts to a massive violation of constitutional rights.
Under the current program, the NSA collects millions of U.S. phone records from three phone companies, which former officials have identified as AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Corp.
Obama administration officials have sought to preserve the collection of phone records in a way that raises fewer concerns about privacy.
One way of doing that would have the phone companies retain the data, the newspaper quoted officials close to the program. The NSA would then tell the companies when it needs searches of call records concerning specific phone numbers the agency believes are connected to terrorism. The companies would provide the results to the NSA.
U.S. President Barack Obama in January asked the nation's intelligence agencies and the attorney general to report by March 28 on alternatives for revamping the program in a way that would take it out of the NSA's hands.