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. Still, he defended the nation’s spying apparatus as a whole, saying the intelligence community was not “cavalier about the civil liberties of our fellow citizens.”
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.
Obama said the U.S. had a “special obligation” to re-examine its intelligence capabilities because of the potential for trampling on civil liberties.
“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,” Obama said in his highly anticipated speech at the Justice Department.
“This debate will make us stronger,” he declared. “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.
Civil libertarians said Obama did not go far enough. Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization would press on in its lawsuit against the administration’s phone surveillance. A federal judge in New York upheld the phone sweeps last month, but the ACLU has appealed the ruling. Romero acknowledged that appeals judges might cite Obama’s changes and not rule on the case.
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.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would introduce legislation to create a special Senate committee to examine the issues and exercise congressional oversight.
Congress would have to approve a 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 people 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.
Many of the president’s recommendations were aimed at increasing the public’s trust in the spying operations. That includes lifting some of the secrecy surrounding the demands that might be sent to companies for data on customers involved in a national security investigation. The White House says those demands, called “national security letters,” will no longer remain secret indefinitely, unless the government establishes a need for the secrecy when they are being used in an investigation.