WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Friday that he’d rein in a contentious federal program that collects millions of Americans’ phone records by requiring court approval each time the data is examined and barring the government from storing the information.
In a long-anticipated speech, Obama outlined a slew of changes to the United States’ vast surveillance programs, including halting spying on dozens of foreign leaders, appointing a team of advocates to sometimes appear before the nation’s secret surveillance court – which now hears arguments only from the government – and releasing more classified documents.
“Ultimately, what’s at stake in this debate goes far beyond a few months of headlines or passing tensions in our foreign policy,” the president said in a speech at the Justice Department. “When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed.”
In his 45-minute address, Obama touted the benefits of surveillance from the Civil War to the Cold War and said the horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, combined with new advances in technology, demanded spying capabilities the likes of which had never been seen before. Though he defended the National Security Agency against charges of wrongdoing, he said the U.S. had an obligation to re-examine its intelligence programs as it looked to restore trust at home and abroad.
He stressed that his revamp of surveillance programs – the most significant in his presidency – was an attempt to strike a balance between protecting Americans from terrorism and addressing the concerns about privacy and civil liberties.
“In our rush to respond to a very real and novel set of threats, the risk of government overreach – the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security – also became more pronounced,” he said.
The speech left many questions unanswered.
Obama said he’d continue to make changes, seek guidance from his administration on how to implement some policies and solicit the advice of a divided Congress, where support for NSA changes does not fall strictly along party lines.
The response from Capitol Hill was mixed.
“President Obama’s announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an NSA critic.
“Make no mistake: This is a major milestone in our long-standing efforts to reform the National Security Agency’s bulk collection program,” said Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., members of the Intelligence Committee.
The extent of the government’s programs became public after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began releasing classified documents last June that showed the agency has been collecting the telephone and email records of millions of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil and spying on a host of global institutions, including the World Bank.
Obama said that Snowden, who’s living in Russia under temporary asylum, had revealed “methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”
White House officials described the president’s proposals as “concrete and substantial reforms,” especially with respect to the bulk collection program, which they claimed would essentially end. But civil liberty and privacy advocates disputed that, saying the program would continue and that they were disappointed Obama didn’t go further.
“Many key questions and reforms were left unaddressed, and many controversies punted to Congress or to other government officials,” said Sascha Meinrath, vice president at the New America Foundation, a research center.
Obama announced several changes overseas that would provide foreigners with some of the same protections as Americans and would stop spying on friendly leaders, though the White House wouldn’t provide names.
He called for greater transparency in surveillance, pledging to review annually whether court opinions should be declassified, releasing national security letters – a form of administrative subpoena – and allowing companies to disclose more information about data they’d provided to the government.
He’ll appoint employees to coordinate diplomacy on issues related to intelligence, to implement privacy safeguards and to review large collections of data.
Much of the president’s focus Friday was on the bulk phone-collection program, which amasses numbers dialed and the duration of calls but not the content of calls. Authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, it started after the 2001 terrorist attacks. It didn’t require court approval until 2006.
Intelligence officials say the bulk phone-records program prevents terrorist attacks, while opponents say it’s helped prevent only a single case, which involved a San Diego cabdriver who was convicted of sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia.
“Collecting billions of benign telephone records will not make us safer,” said Jimmy Gurule, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who teaches law at the University of Notre Dame. “Instead, the focus should be on the intelligence agencies doing a better job of sharing counterterrorism intelligence information. The time has come to rein in the surveillance state.”
Obama will bar the NSA from storing phone records but he offered no recommendation on where the data should be moved, saying that requiring phone companies or a third-party entity – some kind of government contractor – poses cost, liability and logistical problems. He asked Attorney General Eric Holder to craft a plan on data storage before a secret court is due to reauthorize the program March 28.
He also will limit gathering phone records from those further removed from the original suspects and will require court approval each time the data is examined.
“The president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling,” said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data.”
Judges have repeatedly approved the program for 90-day periods. Congress was already tasked with deciding whether to renew the NSA’s authority to collect phone records when the statute it’s based on expires in June 2015.
Obama initially had been skeptical about surveillance as a presidential candidate. But he said he’d changed his mind after his staff evaluated the programs and expanded some of the safeguards.
As president, he signed off on them, continuing many of the programs that his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, began after the 2001 attacks, and he engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on national security leaks.
“I have often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own government,” he said, speaking of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday the nation will observe Monday. “And as president. . . . I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.”
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