WASHINGTON – Seeking to calm a furor over U.S. surveillance, President Barack Obama on Friday called for ending the government's control of phone data from hundreds of millions of Americans and immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get a secretive court's permission before accessing such records.
The president also directed America's intelligence agencies to stop spying on friendly international leaders and called for extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens whose communications are scooped up by the U.S.
Still, Obama defended the American surveillance program as a whole, saying that it has made the country more secure and that a months-long White House review of the procedures had revealed no abuse. However, he said the U.S. had a "special obligation" to re-examine its intelligence capabilities because of the potential for trampling on civil liberties.
"This debate will make us stronger," Obama said during a highly anticipated speech at the Justice Department. "In this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead."
Obama's announcements capped the review that followed former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden's leaks about secret surveillance programs. If fully implemented, the president's proposals would lead to significant changes to the NSA's bulk collection of phone records, which is authorized under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
Even with Obama's decisions, key questions about the future of the surveillance apparatus remain. While Obama wants to strip the NSA of its ability to store the phone records, he offered no recommendation for where the data should be moved. Instead, he gave the intelligence community and the attorney general 60 days to study options, including proposals from a presidential review board that recommended the telephone companies or an unspecified third party.
Privacy advocates say moving the data outside the government's control could minimize the risk of unauthorized or overly broad searches by the NSA. However, the phone companies have balked at changes that would put them back in control of the records, citing liability concerns if hackers or others were able to gain unauthorized access.
There appeared to be some initial confusion about Congress' role in authorizing any changes. An administration official said Obama could codify the data transfer through an executive order, while some congressional aides said legislation would be required.
Congress would have to approve another proposal from the president that would establish a panel of outside attorneys who would consult with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on new legal issues that arise. The White House says the panel would advocate for privacy and civil liberties as the court weighed requests for accessing the phone records.
The moves are more sweeping than many U.S. officials had been anticipating. People close to the White House review process say Obama was still grappling with the key decisions on the phone record collections in the days leading up to Friday's speech.
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A look at some of the changes the president is proposing:
PHONE RECORDS STORAGE: Effective immediately, the National Security Agency will be required to get a secretive court's permission before accessing phone records that are collected from hundreds of millions of Americans.
Those records, which include numbers dialed and call lengths but not the content of calls, are currently stored by the government. But Obama is calling for that to change. He is directing the attorney general and the intelligence community to come up with a new plan for another party to store the data. Some of the proposals that have been floated previously include having phone companies or a new third party store the data.
Also, the government will no longer be able to access phone records beyond two "hops" from the person they are targeting. That means the government can't access records for someone who called someone who called someone who called the suspect.
NATIONAL SECURITY LETTERS: No longer will national security letters be kept secret indefinitely. Federal law enforcement officers issue these letters to banks, phone companies and others, demanding customer information, and the recipients are currently barred from disclosing that they've received the requests. Under Obama's proposal, the government must establish the need for those letters to remain secret. The White House says providers receiving the letters will be able to make more information about them available publicly than ever before.
One aspect that's not changing is the government's ability to issue the letters without seeking a court's approval.
SPYING ON LEADERS OVERSEAS: Revelations that the U.S. monitored the communications of friendly heads of state have sparked outrage overseas. Going forward, the U.S. won't monitor the communications of "our close friends and allies overseas" unless there's a compelling national security purpose. But the White House isn't publicizing a list of which countries fall under that category, so there's little clarity about how that proposal will be implemented.
SPYING ON FOREIGNERS: Obama is issuing a presidential directive that outlines what the government uses intelligence for, and what purposes are prohibited. The directive says the government uses data for counterintelligence, counterterrorism and cybersecurity, to protect U.S. forces and allies, and to combat weapons proliferation and transnational crime. The directive says intelligence can't be used to suppress criticism, to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies, or to discriminate against people based on factors like race, gender or sexual orientation.
Obama is also proposing to extend to foreigners some protections against spying that U.S. citizens enjoy. He's directing the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to develop safeguards dealing with how long the U.S. can hold information on non-citizens overseas, and restrictions on how the data is used.
PRIVACY ADVOCATE: Obama called for a panel of outside advocates that can represent privacy and civil liberty concerns before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Those advocates would be present in for cases where the court is considering issues that are novel or significant – for instance, cases that raise a new issue the court hasn't dealt with previously.
This is one proposal that Obama cannot implement on his own. Because it involves another branch of government, Congress will have to act to change the way the court operates.
PERSONNEL CHANGES: Obama is directing the State Department to appoint a senior officer to coordinate diplomatic issues regarding technology and data-collection. At the White House, a senior official will be designated to carry out privacy safeguards. Obama also wants to centralize the process used to screen requests for U.S. intelligence that come in from foreign governments. And Obama is asking a senior White House adviser, John Podesta, to lead a broad review of privacy "big data" that will involve input from industry and privacy experts.