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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.”
He briefly addressed Snowden himself.
“I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” he said. “If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy,” Obama said. “Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”
Obama also suggested that he was the right person to find the balance between privacy and security.
“I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents, like Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], who were spied on by their own government; as a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats,” he said.
Obama ordered more transparency in the FBI’s use of national security letters to gather data on the target of an investigation, but he also made clear the need to keep the metadata program operational in one form or another.
“One of the 9/11 hijackers — Khalid al-Mihdhar — made a phone call from San Diego to a known al-Qaida safe-house in Yemen,” Obama said. “NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible.”
Obama said the program could help “if a bomb goes off” in a city and law enforcement is racing to prevent additional attacks. “Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort,” he said.
But he said that it makes sense to keep the information in private hands, after a transition period, while preserving the government’s ability to mine the data. In the meantime, judicial oversight will be required to access the data unless there is “a true emergency,” he said.
Obama also said he will work with Congress on exactly how to proceed.
“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,” he said.
The president also sought to quell the international furor, reiterating that overseas communications are also limited and not used for commercial or other purposes outside of security.
“The bottom line is that people around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account,” he said.