President Barack Obama announced a host of tweaks and trims to the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs on Friday, aimed at quelling the firestorm created by Edward Snowden’s leaks.
“The power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do,” Obama said. “That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”
In the months since Snowden leaked details of the surveillance programs, the president has repeatedly maintained that the major NSA programs have not been abused, while acknowledging that public confidence has been undermined.
The actual details of the new proposal — a plan to privatize the holding of telephone metadata, require judicial oversight of metadata searches, establish a new privacy advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, reduced spying on foreign leaders, and other measures — don’t appear to radically change the NSA’s reach.
The administration said that some of the pieces would require congressional action — including creating the architecture for having private companies keep telephone data for the government to mine and setting up the privacy advocate for the secret court.
That might be enough for Congress to chew on without dismantling the program itself — something the House came close to voting to do last year, despite opposition from Democratic and Republican leadership.
Obama repeatedly backed the capabilities of the NSA, saying they are important for protecting the nation.
But administration officials seemed to have new humility on a conference call with reporters, saying, “the government should not hold” all of the data it does because of the potential risks to personal privacy. That admission is a major victory for Snowden.
Dozens of foreign leaders also will no longer be targeted — a nod to the furor created when the leaks revealed that the government was listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
While Obama announced new limits, he also gave his strongest defense yet of the need to gather intelligence and of the people who do so — saying that the new capabilities after 9/11 have prevented attacks around the world.
“In an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic, the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people,” he said. “They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails.”
Obama described the Snowden leaks as “an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures.”