Story highlights

The Obama administration is asking a secret court to extend five-year limit

The Justice Department says litigation requires that records be preserved longer

Edward Snowden leaks publicized sweeping U.S. surveillance of phone data

CNN  — 

The Obama administration is asking a special federal court to allow its secret storage of telephone records to be extended beyond the current five-year limit.

In a legal brief filed with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that was revealed Wednesday, the Justice Department said several civil lawsuits over the government’s so-called metadata collection program require it to preserve those records.

“When litigation is pending against a party (or reasonably anticipated), that party has a duty to preserve – that is to identify, locate and maintain – relevant information that may be evidence in the case,” said federal officials, noting that evidence would likely be used at a trial, which may not be held for months, even years.

Current surveillance court orders require the National Security Agency or telecommunication companies that gathered the phone records to destroy the material within five years.

The court is likely to grant the request, but may seek assurances the agency would not access the material for intelligence-gathering purposes, absent a warrant.

NSA leaker Edward Snowden last June revealed a secret surveillance court order approving government collection of mass amounts of metadata from telecom giant Verizon and leading Internet companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

It includes phone numbers called and their location. The exact percentage of metadata being collected has not been revealed publicly. Monitoring of actual conversations requires a separate warrant.

President Barack Obama last month cited privacy concerns when announcing that such data should no longer be held by the government, but instead be turned over to the domestic telecoms or a private third party.

NSA would still have access to the calls to track potential terror connections. He ordered the intelligence community to formulate such a plan by March 28.

The mission of the FISA court, named after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that created it, is to decide whether to grant certain types of government requests – wiretapping, data analysis, and other monitoring for “foreign intelligence purposes” of suspected terrorists and spies operating in the United States.

The once-secret approval of collecting bits and pieces of information from electronic communications comes quarterly from judges at the court.

To collect the information, the government has to demonstrate to a judge that it is “relevant” to an international terrorism investigation.

There were 1,856 applications in 2012 to the FISA Court for electronic surveillance and physical searches for “foreign intelligence purposes,” the Justice Department said.

The current case is In re: Application of the FBI for an Order Requiring the Production of Tangible Things (BR 14-01).