President Obama announced on Friday that he would place new restrictions on controversial surveillance programs that have sparked controversy around the world since they were revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks.
The president said he would now require intelligence agencies to obtain judicial approval before reviewing databases of information about telephone calls.
It’s unclear who would hold on to data collected by telecom companies.
Obama did not offer a specific proposal for how that information would be stored, including whether it would all be held by one third party or by individual telephone companies, who have said they don’t want the responsibility.
“I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives, and open the door to more intrusive, bulk collection programs in the future,” Obama told lawmakers and intelligence officials assembled for his highly-anticipated speech at the Justice Department.
Obama also announced new restrictions on the surveillance of foreign leaders, as revelations about the NSA monitoring the phones of global leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have enraged populations around the world.
But the president's speech and suggested reforms appeared designed primarily to assure Americans — and the world — about the scope of U.S. intelligence programs, rather than representing a substantial policy change.
Obama ultimately rejected many of the more aggressive reforms suggested by a review panel commissioned to examine the nation's surveillance practices. The president did not dramatically overhaul the mission of the National Security Agency or require judicial review of national security letters — requests for information unilaterally issued by agencies like the FBI.
Civil liberties advocates have complained that the letters are issued without a court order, and can include an indefinite gag order preventing recipients from ever disclosing it received the letter. Obama said that he would direct the Justice Department to amend the program to improve transparency, but stopped short of further constraints.
Nor did Obama order changes to a controversial program that surveils foreign electronic communications. Obama argued that effort was crucial to security and provided the U.S. and its allies information they needed to thwart terror attacks.
“What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale – not only because I felt that they made us more secure; but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” Obama said.
Obama instead sought to explain the surveillance programs couched in a broader historical context, channeling his time as a constitutional professor before his election to Washington.
Obama invoked the nation's history of surveillance, harkening back to Paul Revere during the Revolutionary War. He argued that today's challenges were merely the latest — and most technologically challenging — in centuries of debate.
“We have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals – and our Constitution – require,” Obama said.
And the president insisted that there was no evidence that intelligence officials had systematically broken the law or invaded the privacy of “ordinary people.”
“They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails,” Obama said.
That many of the president's proposed reforms will require further study or congressional help only further complicates the question of how substantive Obama's reform efforts will be.
Obama is asking Attorney General Eric Holder and members of the intelligence community to find a way to preserve the capabilities of the program without the government holding the metadata. The White House will also solicit input from Congress, and is expected to announce their solution within 60 days.
The report prepared by the review panel last month suggested that the records be maintained by telephone companies or a third party. But companies have been resistant to that idea, fearful that it could sour their relationships with customers and prove expensive.
Obama acknowledged any possible solutions “pose difficult problems.”
“Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns,” Obama said. “On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single, consolidated data-base would be carrying out what is essentially a government function but with more expense, more legal ambiguity, potentially less accountability, all of which would have a doubtful impact on public confidence that their privacy is being protected.”
Several of the other reforms Obama called for will require action by Congress.
“On all of these issues, I am open to working with Congress to ensure that we build a broad consensus for how to move forward, and am confident that we can shape an approach that meets our security needs while upholding the civil liberties of every American,” Obama said.
For instance, the president will ask Congress to approve a panel of privacy and technology lawyers who would represent outside interests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the top secret judicial panel that reviews the surveillance issues. The panel would represent privacy concerns as the court considers new and novel legal questions, but is not expected to argue specific individuals' cases.
The president's other proposals largely focused on additional or ongoing disclosure of spy activity, rather than efforts to limit the government's surveillance practices.
Obama announced that he would order his administration to disclose any new opinions of the secret intelligence court “with broad privacy implications.” New White House aide John Podesta will also lead a government review of bulk data collection, both within the government and the private sector.
Internet providers and technology companies will be given greater latitude to disclose general information about the national security requests they receive.
White House officials said that the president's proposals came after lengthy consultation with outside groups, including members of Congress, technology companies, and privacy advocates.
During his speech, Obama said he did not intend to dwell on Snowden, the former government contractor who leaked information about the NSA programs to the world. Snowden is wanted on espionage charges and is not living in Russia, which granted him temporary asylum.
This story was posted at 11:51 a.m. and updated at 1:24 p.m.