President Obama on Friday announced a series of limited reforms to surveillance programs in an effort to quell privacy concerns surrounding the National Security Agency’s spying activity.
“America’s capabilities are unique,” Obama said in a speech at the Department of Justice. “That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”
Obama is ordering the agency to change — but not end — a controversial program that collects telephone records of U.S. citizens, among other reforms. But some privacy advocates are already questioning whether those changes went far enough to limit the government’s spying power.
The president repeatedly claimed that intelligence officers have not abused their authority by listening to Americans’ private phone calls and emails. But he said changes are meant to restore the public’s trust that the government can balance national security concerns with civil liberties.
“Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties,” he said. “The challenge is getting the details right, and that’s not simple.”
Obama said that the collection of telephone “metadata” continues to be a useful tool to combat national security threats. But he’s asking Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence agencies to develop a plan within 60 days to move control of the data outside the federal government.
It’s not yet clear whether the data will be stored with telephone companies, another third party, or disposed with entirely.
The government won’t be able to access bulk metadata without approval from the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence (FISA) Court, which reviews government surveillance programs. Intelligence agencies will also be restrained in how far they can dig into the phone records of numbers connected to the original target of an investigation.
The changes come in response to the release of hundreds of thousands of documents stolen by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which revealed a sprawling web of domestic surveillance efforts.
Obama nodded to the fact Snowden’s leaks sparked the public controversy that led to the changes. But the president claimed that Snowden has done more harm than good, saying that his “sensational” nature “shed more heat than light.”
“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.
Here some of the other key changes that Obama announced:
- Obama has asked Congress to form a panel of outside privacy advocates and tech experts to serve as a public advocate to the FISA courts.
- Heads of state who are determined to be close allies of the U.S. cannot be the targets of electronic surveillance. But when asked by reporters, senior administration officials would not specify what would qualify a foreign leader as a close ally.
- Obama ordered top officials to implement restrictions on the government’s ability to use communications between American citizens and foreigners under a surveillance program aimed at non-U.S. citizens abroad.
The question remains, however, whether the reforms will mollify civil libertarians, privacy advocates, and others who have been critical of the administration’s use of sweeping surveillance tactics.
Almost seven in ten Americans said that the NSA’s bulk data collection program intrudes on Americans’ privacy rights, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Obama’s proposals left many questions unanswered, such as where the bulk metadata will be stored and whether the FISA court will be any better than the NSA in limiting access to the phone records, according to Kevin Bankston, policy director at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology institute.
“The right answer here is to stop the bulk collection completely—not to keep the same bulk data under a different roof,” he said in a statement.
The issue could may become a headache on Capitol Hill for the Obama administration. Obama’s recommendations called for congressional involvement in improving oversight and transparency in the intelligence gathering process. But civil-libertarian lawmakers could be even more aggressive in pushing for intelligence program changes in the wake of Obama’s announcement.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a critic of the NSA surveillance programs, said that Obama’s reforms keep in place “the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration.”
And here’s Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another civil libertarian.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.