Obama Defends Spy Programs, Reins In Some Aspects

Obama Defends Spy Programs, Reins In Some Aspects
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President Obama offered a vigorous defense of U.S. signals intelligence gathering Friday, asserting anew that there is no evidence of government abuse of laws when it comes to Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.

Nevertheless, he announced adjustments to some surveillance programs, conceding that new “bulk collection programs” in the future run the risk of disclosing more about citizens’ private lives as technology advances. “I believe we need a new approach,” he said.

Many of the changes Obama ordered on his own, and others he encouraged Congress to consider, would not be immediate and are intended to enhance public confidence about programs he says are effective but were unknown to the public before last year.

“These efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives -- not just here in the United States, but around the globe,” Obama said at the Justice Department after praising the work of the intelligence community.

Lawmakers, security experts and privacy advocates offered mixed reviews after the speech, suggesting that the public debate about the very existence of the phone metadata program had shifted to a complex discussion about modifications, more transparency and annual oversight of laws and practices used by the government to combat terrorism.

Obama said he would alter the National Security Agency’s phone metadata program, which stockpiles information about all phone calls made by and to Americans, by “transitioning” away from archiving such metadata inside the government. That program was secret until disclosed last summer through major newspapers by former federal contractor Edward Snowden.

For now, however, that signals-collection program will continue -- with two procedural adjustments Obama ordered -- while debate continues about how (as an alternative to NSA data-storage) such private-sector communications data would continue to be accessible to the government so it can track plotters and thwart terror attacks. Obama said he was turning to Congress and independent experts to develop practical solutions that might resolve that question, preferably in advance of the law’s reauthorization in late March.

“The reforms I'm proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe,” the president said during a 45-minute address.

Senior administration officials confirmed Obama was not proposing changes to other signals-surveillance programs used by the intelligence community and justified under the same section of the law as the metadata phone collection program.

“We’re not addressing any other potential programs with regard to [Section] 215” beyond “bulk telephony metadata,” a senior administration official said, referencing Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

A trio of Democratic senators who are members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee said after the speech that they plan to continue pushing for additional reforms in Congress, despite their praise for Obama’s “intent” to end the phone metadata program.

“In particular, we will work to close the [NSA] `back-door searches’ loophole, and ensure that the government does not read Americans’ emails or other communications without a warrant,” Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said in a jointly issued statement.

The senators’ mention of a loophole pointed to the NSA’s power to collect the content of electronic communications without a warrant if the target is overseas, not in the United States. Advocates for reform seek to prohibit the NSA from vacuuming up Americans’ phone, email and other electronic data under the guise of working backward through a chain of data from a foreign target.

Obama said he was responsive to concerns about the NSA’s “Section 702” program by directing the attorney general and the director of national intelligence “to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government's ability to retain, search and use in criminal cases communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702.”

Privacy advocates and civil liberties groups said the president’s desire to overhaul the NSA’s bulk phone data collection program was laudable, but that he should end a program that his own independent signals-intelligence review panel told him had not dismantled a single terrorist plot.

“The right answer here is to stop the bulk collection completely -- not to keep the same bulk data under a different roof,” said Kevin Bankston, policy director for New America’s Open Technology Institute, a nonprofit policy advocacy organization.

“The president should end -- not mend -- the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data,” the American Civil Liberties Union argued in a statement that otherwise commended Obama’s interest in transparency, outside advocacy and extension of some U.S. surveillance protections to foreign citizens.

Obama started off his speech with a reference to Paul Revere, and continued with two mentions of Snowden, a detailed reference to phone chatter between 9/11 plotters, and closed with terse swipes at the governments of China and Russia for their privacy-rights critiques of the administration.

Obama said he sought to reassure allied heads of state and government that their phone calls are no longer subject to NSA surveillance, unless the United States decides such surveillance is justified by national security concerns. A senior administration official, briefing reporters before Friday’s speech, confirmed that “dozens” of world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were part of the NSA surveillance of international phone communications, revealed last year by Snowden, who is now living in exile in Russia.

Obama’s no-spying-on-foreign-leaders order does not extend to foreign officials and aides close to heads of state who are deemed friends of the United States, a senior administration official clarified to reporters before the president’s remarks. “We focused on heads of state and government. Frankly, that was the issue that had emerged. We do believe that's a unique category,” the official said. “Having looked at this issue and having reviewed our signals intelligence, we have made determinations to not pursue surveillance on dozens of heads of state and government.”

During his speech, Obama said he was content to pick up his phone to get information from world leaders rather than spy on their communications. “I've made clear to the intelligence community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies,” he said.

Responding to complaints from private communications companies that turn over customers’ information to the government, Obama said he would increase the transparency of those secret government orders, known as national security letters. He said he wants to terminate the secrecy “within a fixed period,” and wants to permit companies to make public more information about their cooperation with the government.

As expected, lawmakers’ reactions to the changes Obama advocated varied, including his recommendations to punt some decisions to Congress.

House Speaker John Boehner suggested the president’s announcements were politically motivated to respond to public anxieties, and risked handcuffing U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

“I look forward to learning more about how the new procedure for accessing data will not put Americans at greater risk,” Boehner said in a statement. “The House will review any legislative reforms proposed by the administration, but we will not erode the operational integrity of critical programs that have helped keep America safe."

Kentucky conservative Sen. Rand Paul, who is mulling a presidential run in 2016, said the final word on NSA surveillance would come from the judicial branch, not the executive or legislative branches.

“This is something that’s going to have to be decided by the Supreme Court,” he said during a CNN interview.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, who attended Obama’s speech, said Congress should amend the provisions of laws used to authorize the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data, which were enacted as part of the Patriot Act.

“The President has ordered some significant changes, but more are needed,” Leahy said in a statement. “Section 215 must still be amended, legislatively, to ensure it is not used for dragnet surveillance in the future, and we must fight to create an effective, institutional advocate at the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court. I will continue to push for meaningful legislative reforms to our surveillance laws.”

Obama endorsed a number of changes involving the secret FISA Court, which is part of the judiciary and was established by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The president said he wanted the NSA, during a transition phase before its metadata stockpiling may end, to relinquish its sole authority to search the phone data for connections to suspected terrorists. Moving forward, “the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency,” Obama said, adding that he tasked Attorney General Eric Holder to work with the FISA Court to develop a new layer of oversight and approval.

He did not elaborate about the standards his top law enforcement official and the country’s secret intelligence judges would set to permit the intelligence community to execute those searches through phone data.

In the past, NSA said that fewer than 24 intelligence officials possessed the authority to approve such queries.

The president also asked Congress to create a new panel of counsels with classified clearances to advocate for the public interest before the FISA Court, as a way to “offer additional advocacy and outside perspectives on significant issues,” one senior administration official explained.

RCP congressional reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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