WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Friday is expected to announce some new limits on the National Security Agency program that collects billions of Americans’ phone records, but he will call on Congress to help determine the program’s future, according to current and former officials familiar with the administration’s plans.
Obama has concluded that the program has value as a counterterrorism tool, the officials said, but is also confronting difficult political realities. The program’s sweeping nature has led to serious privacy concerns, and a divided Congress is unlikely to renew it when the law underpinning the program expires next year.
Congress has a responsibility to establish limits on government surveillance, so it’s entirely appropriate that Congress weigh in on the phone records program, said Jeremy Bash, a former CIA and Pentagon chief of staff who said he was not briefed on remarks.
Officials have said Obama’s speech is part of an effort to restore confidence at home and abroad in the government’s surveillance policies. While the NSA program has perhaps raised the most significant concerns about privacy advocates, a series of disclosures over the past eight months has generated controversy over U.S. intelligence activities.
White House officials said Obama’s speech is still being crafted and declined to comment. He will deliver the address at the Justice Department in his first appearance there – a symbolic choice to signal the administration’s commitment to the rule of law even in the secret world of surveillance.
One former official familiar with the internal deliberations said presidential aides considered sending Obama to Maryland’s Fort Meade, where the NSA is headquartered, for what would have been his first visit to the spy agency. But advisers decided against it.
Two people familiar with the deliberations said the president is likely to emphasize that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data – which includes numbers dialed but not call content – is not something that the government should rely on except in limited circumstances related to the agency’s mission.
The program was begun after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was placed under court supervision in 2006.
The White House has opted not to shift the job of holding the phone records for the NSA to phone companies, which a presidential advisory group recommended in a report last month.
My guess is the more they looked at this, the more complicated it got, and they realized this isn’t the silver bullet, said one company executive who was not authorized to speak on record.