Obama to make a major change in the NSA’s surveillance program. — Politico
The reforms are the most substantial public response by the White House to criticism at home and abroad over the scope of U.S. surveillance activities revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama made the case that U.S. intelligence officials have not broken the law or spied on the calls or e-mails of “ordinary people.”
“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,” Obama said. “They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails.”
And yet Obama said the United States will not halt intelligence-gathering activities while the global threats remain. He said foreign governments — without naming any — continue trying to hack into U.S. government data. For this reason, Obama said, mobile phones are not allowed inside the White House Situation Room.
“We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies,” Obama said. “We know that the intelligence services of other countries — including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures — are constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations, intercept our emails, or compromise our systems.”
Obama’s proposal pushes in the direction of keeping the call data in the private sector: either with phone companies themselves or a third-party which would pool data from all companies. He also raised the possibility that other intelligence agency capabilities might be able to replace the program.
Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials to come up with a detailed plan by March 28 for how to maintain the government’s ability to tap into the calling data.
In the meantime, Obama said every government search of telecommunications data will require review by the FISA court. Until now, NSA personnel have been able to request the data based on a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that phone numbers are tied to terrorist activity. However, no judge routinely reviewed those queries either before or after they were made.
The president declared that the government will no longer access phone records more than two people removed from an individual officials are monitoring, down from three people removed under existing court orders.
Obama is also asking Congress to create a panel of public advocates that will monitor the FISA court process.
Obama has gone to significant lengths to calm overseas anger about the U.S. monitoring of foreign citizens, particularly foreign leaders whose private cell phones had been monitored by the NSA, according to documents leaked by Snowden.
Though Obama acknowledged Snowden by name, he said he is “not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations.”
“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.”
And yet Obama criticized foreign governments that have criticized the United States after the Snowden leaks while privately acknowledging the U.S. has a responsibility to keep the world safe.
“A number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world’s only superpower,” Obama said, adding that some of those countries “themselves have relied on the information we obtain to protect their own people.”
Included in the directive Obama is issuing is language that makes clear the United States “does not use signals intelligence to indiscriminately collect” foreigners’ email and phone data, a senior administration official told reporters earlier Friday. Snowden’s documents showed the NSA had access to personal cell phone calls of a host of foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama didn’t mention Merkel during the speech, but did make reference to “totalitarian states like East Germany,” where Merkel was raised.”
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