WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is asking a secret federal court to let the government keep telephone records collected by the National Security Agency beyond a five-year limit, arguing that it has an obligation to retain evidence in lawsuits it is facing.
Data collected under the NSA's phone records programs are supposed to be destroyed within five years, but lawyers for the government are asking that the records be preserved longer for use as potential evidence in pending lawsuits. The Justice Department says it has a legal obligation to identify, locate and maintain information that may be used as evidence in those suits that might otherwise be destroyed.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles are among those suing to have the phone records program declared unconstitutional.
"This is just a distraction," ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a written statement. "We don't have any objection to the government deleting these records. While they're at it, they should delete the whole database."
The request was made in a filing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court has not ruled on the request, which was made public Wednesday. The government does not specify how long it thinks the records should be stored, but it says any order should allow the government to maintain the data "until relieved of its preservation obligations, or until further order of this court."
The Justice Department said intelligence analysts would not have access to data retained beyond the five-year period and that the data would be kept solely for "purposes of meeting its obligation to preserve potentially relevant evidence in the ongoing civil cases."