Obama Unveils Surveillance Reforms

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and surveillance techniques, US Department of Justice, Washington, DC, Jan. 17, 2014.
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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and surveillance techniques, US Department of Justice, Washington, DC, Jan. 17, 2014.

U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled reforms Friday in the vast surveillance being conducted by the country’s clandestine National Security Agency.

Aiming to calm uproar over NSA telecommunications surveillance, Obama unveiled plans to end government control of an enormous cache of bulk phone records about calls made by Americans.
In a highly anticipated speech at the Justice Department, the president also said government access and searching of any data held by phone or telecommunications companies will require judicial approval.
In order to implement changes to existing surveillance policies, Obama said his presidential directive will engage justice and security officials, and include input from civil liberties organizations. He also announced plans to create a panel comprising a range of public advocates to weigh in on decisions made by the special surveillance court.
Obama also said he would appoint new State Department and White House officials to oversee the implementation of the new surveillance policies. These appointees would also maintain dialogue and outreach to both international and domestic communities impacted by the policy changes.
The president also repeatedly emphasized the importance of protecting the privacy of foreign leaders as well as that of individual Americans. He said U.S. intelligence gathering overseas only relates to the country’s national security concerns, not private conversations of foreign leaders, or any spy activity intended to benefit American companies.
Obama said the U.S. will not spy on foreigners and allied leaders unless there is “a compelling national security interest.” He also is initiating a White House review of policies on so-called “big data,” taking into account the pace of technological change that has revolutionized communications worldwide.
Implementation of the new policies will require a transitional period to finalize the new policies, many of which will be subject to Congressional review and authorization by March 2014.
Following up a months-long White House probe that followed former NSA analyst Edward Snowden’s leaks about secret surveillance programs, the president, mentioning Snowden by name, said the unauthorized disclosures shed “more heat than light,” and that it is critical to strike a balance between defending against terrorism and cyber attacks while protecting civil liberties domestically and abroad.
Winding up the 43-minute speech, the president said “this debate will makes us stronger,” noting there could be no open debate about privacy concerns in other capitals, such as Moscow or Beijing.
Legitimate concerns at home, abroad
Saying surveillance critics have legitimate concerns about the clandestine program opening the door to more intrusive policies, the president said the controversial program “as it currently exists” will end, and that the debate leading to his decision has inspired “clear direction for change.”
Obama said the same technological advances that allow U.S. intelligence agencies to pinpoint an al-Qaida cell in Yemen also put routine communications around the world within the reach of government investigators. He admitted how disquieting that prospect can be for everyone as the digital revolution transforms the world.
The president also said legal safeguards that bar government surveillance of U.S. citizens without a warrant do not apply to foreign persons overseas. He said this is a precaution similar to the practices of many other nations, and added: “the whole point of intelligence is to obtain information that is not publicly available.”
Obama said intelligence agencies cannot function without keeping details of their work secret, but that continuing attacks and cyber attacks make it necessary for the intelligence community to be able to “connect the dots” as a central defender of the nation.
The president said U.S. intelligence agencies are not abusing their authority. Mistakes will happen, he added, but U.S. operatives correct such errors when they occur.
Obama also said the United States’ intelligence gathering throughout its two-century existence “has helped secure our country and freedom.” But he said the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. posed new challenges for the country and that its intelligence agencies had to adapt beyond the type of spying they had conducted for decades.

Snowden disclosures


The speech follows months of disclosures about NSA spying by former national security contractor Snowden. The NSA says he stole 1.7 million documents before fleeing to asylum in Russia.

Obama announced a comprehensive of surveillance procedures in August.

The president stressed his responsibility as commander-in-chief to safeguard the security of Americans, but recognized escalating public concerns about how the government goes about using signals intelligence.

Obama has met with technology industry CEOs, civil liberties experts and government officials and consulted with Congress. Reforms would require congressional action.

There have been court rulings with judges issuing opposing statements on NSA activities, including the collection of phone records. Experts predict the issue is certain to reach the Supreme Court.

A member of the review panel, Cass Sunstein, told Congress that the group aimed to ensure that the U.S. intelligence community can continue to do what it needs to do to protect national security.

“Not one of the 46 recommendations in our report, in our view, compromise or jeopardize that ability in any way,”  Sunstein said.

Debate is likely to continue over the extent to which NSA surveillance methods have actually prevented terrorist attacks. The presidential panel said it “was not essential to preventing attacks,” a finding supported by a separate study by the Washington-based New America Foundation.

Former CIA deputy director Mike Morell said the bulk data program, known as Section 215 in U.S. law, was not as useful as one aimed at foreigners, but still had value.

“It is absolutely true that the 215 program has not played a significant role in disrupting any attacks to this point. That is a different statement than saying the program is not important,” said Morell.

Morell said “it turned out be wrong” that existing oversight over the bulk phone data program would succeed in maintaining the public trust.

US opinion polls

Polls in recent months have shown a majority of Americans believe existing laws are inadequate when it comes to oversight of NSA methods.

“The latest polling that I have seen indicates that the public continues to lose confidence, especially for those who fear or are concerned about their privacy,” said intelligence historian Aid.

Globally, Obama’s remarks will be carefully assessed because of the controversy over NSA eavesdropping — revealed by Snowden leaks — on phone calls of key leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Among 46 recommendations, the review panel called for high-level approval of sensitive intelligence requirements, including identifying “uses and limits” of surveillance of foreign leaders.

VOA White House correspondent Dan Robinson and Washington reporter Ken Bredemeier and Pete Cobus contributed to this report.