Obama retains spying programs, with some new limits


McClatchy Washington Bureau

President Barack Obama said Friday that he would rein in a contentious federal program that collects millions of Americans’ phone records by requiring court approval each time the data is examined and barring the government from storing the information.

In a long-anticipated speech, Obama outlined a slew of changes to the United States’ vast surveillance programs, including halting spying on dozens of foreign leaders, appointing a team of advocates to sometimes appear before the nation’s secret surveillance court — which now hears arguments only from the government — and releasing more classified documents.

“Ultimately, what’s at stake in this debate goes far beyond a few months of headlines or passing tensions in our foreign policy,” the president said in a speech at the Justice Department. “When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed.”

In his 45-minute address, Obama touted the benefits of surveillance from the Civil War to the Cold War and said the horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, combined with new advances in technology, demanded spying capabilities the likes of which had never been seen before. Though he defended the National Security Agency against charges of wrongdoing, he said the United States had an obligation to re-examine its intelligence programs as it looked to restore trust at home and abroad.

He stressed that his revamp of surveillance programs — the most significant in his presidency — was an attempt to strike a balance between protecting Americans from terrorism and addressing the concerns about privacy and civil liberties.

“In our rush to respond to a very real and novel set of threats, the risk of government overreach — the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security — also became more pronounced,” he said.

The speech left many questions unanswered.

Mixed reaction

Obama said he’d continue to make changes, seek guidance from his administration on how to implement some policies and solicit the advice of a divided Congress, where support for NSA changes does not fall strictly along party lines.

The response from Capitol Hill was mixed.

“President Obama’s announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an NSA critic.

“Make no mistake: This is a major milestone in our long-standing efforts to reform the National Security Agency’s bulk collection program,” said Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., members of the Intelligence Committee.


White House officials described the president’s proposals as “concrete and substantial reforms,” especially with respect to the bulk collection program, which they claimed would essentially end. But civil liberty and privacy advocates disputed that, saying the program would continue and that they were disappointed Obama didn’t go further.

“Many key questions and reforms were left unaddressed, and many controversies punted to Congress or to other government officials,” said Sascha Meinrath, vice president at the New America Foundation, a research center.

Obama announced several changes overseas that would provide foreigners with some of the same protections as Americans and would stop spying on friendly leaders, though the White House wouldn’t provide names.

He called for greater transparency in surveillance, pledging to review annually whether court opinions should be declassified, releasing national security letters – a form of administrative subpoena – and allowing companies to disclose more information about data they’d provided to the government.

Patriot act

He'll appoint employees to coordinate diplomacy on issues related to intelligence, to implement privacy safeguards and to review large collections of data.

Much of the president’s focus Friday was on the bulk phone-collection program, which amasses numbers dialed and the duration of calls but not the content of calls. Authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, it started after the 2001 terrorist attacks. It didn’t require court approval until 2006.

Intelligence officials say the bulk phone-records program prevents terrorist attacks, while opponents say it’s helped prevent only a single case, which involved a San Diego cabdriver who was convicted of sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia.

“Collecting billions of benign telephone records will not make us safer,” said Jimmy Gurule, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who teaches law at the University of Notre Dame. “Instead, the focus should be on the intelligence agencies doing a better job of sharing counterterrorism intelligence information. The time has come to rein in the surveillance state.”

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