President Obama, declared this morning that advances in technology have made it difficult “to both defend the nation and uphold civil liberties”. Mr. Obama will now restrict the ability of intelligence agencies from gaining access to telephone date, which would ultimately move the data out of the hands of the government.
Mr. Obama excluded elements regarding the broad surveillance net assembled by the National Security Agency, leaving many of the changes up to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves. Mr. Obama’s topics ranged from principles to technical details, finally stating that he would require prior court approval for the viewing of telephone date. He also stated he would forbid eavesdropping on the leaders of allied countries, after the disclosure of such activities ignited a diplomatic firestorm with Germany and other friendly nations.
“America’s capabilities are unique,” Mr. Obama said. “And the power of new technologies means that there fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”
Mr. Obama delivered a defense of the nation’s intelligence establishment, saying that there was no evidence presented to prove it had abused its power. The reason it was implemented was to protect Americans from a host of threats in the years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Mr. Obama did not accept one of the most significant recommendations of his own advisory panel on surveillance practices: requiring prior court approval for so-called national security letters, which the government uses to demand information on individuals from companies. And in leaving much of the implementation up to Congress, he most likely opened the door to extremely continuous battles.
“When you cut through the noise.” the president said, “what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed.”
Though the president has been weighing changes for months, he has finally made a decision on judicial review of the collection of phone records only on Thursday night, a senior official said, attesting to the extreme delicateness of these issues and the competing interests at play.
The changes will be an overhaul of a bulk data program that has swept up many millions of records of Americans’ telephone calls, though not their content. While Mr. Obama said such collection was important to foil terrorist plots, he acknowledged that it could be abused and has not been subject to an adequate public debate.
“Critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives, and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs,” he said.
Mr. Obama said intelligence agencies would pursue only phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, rather than three. He also instructed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that intelligence agencies could gain access to the existing database only in an emergency or with a court order.
It is still unknown which entity will hold the storehouse of phone metadata, the president said Mr. Holder would make recommendations in 60 days. Privacy advocates have called for telecommunications providers to keep the data, though many of the companies are resisting it.
President Obama has offered more protections to non-Americans, saying that the United States would extend privacy safeguards to foreigners for incidental information collected. He said he had directed Mr. Holder to develop procedures to restrict how long the government could hold that data, and what it could do with it. Mr. Obama also stated that he would forbid eavesdropping on the leaders of allied countries, though he did not offer a list of those, and he pointedly said the United Staes would continue to collect information on the intentions of foreign governments.
The president has been criticized by companies that protest that the N.S.A.’s practices are costing them billions of dollars in foreign sales, as customers in Europe and Asia fear that American products are deliberately comprised by the agency. Mr. Obama’s refusal to address the issue reflects a deep divide in the administration, with some intelligence officials complaining that without the ability to break the encryption, to create “back doors” to enter computer systems abroad and to exploit flaws in software, the United States would be unilaterally disarming at a moment of heightened cyber conflict. The president proposed to create a panel of advocates on privacy and technology issues that would appear before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But the panel would be called on only in “novel cases”, rather than in every case. Left unanswered is who would decide which cases are novel.
Mr. Obama did not take up a recommendation to have the members of the surveillance court selected by appeals court judges rather than exclusively by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Mr. Obama is not opposed to overhauling that process, administration officials said, but such a change would have to be authorized by Congress, and he did not want to appear to be targeting the chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr.