WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday defended U.S. electronic spying as a bulwark against terrorism while promising U.S. citizens and allies he will put new restraints on the government’s sweeping global surveillance programs.
In his long-anticipated response to the uproar set off by disclosures of telephone and Internet spying by the National Security Agency, the president ordered his top legal and intelligence officials to review storage of bulk data from phone calls and left other action up to a divided Congress. Many of the changes may be months away if they are adopted at all.
“What’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed,” Obama said in a speech delivered Friday at the Justice Department in Washington. “Technology is remaking what is possible for individuals, and for institutions and for the international order.”
Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned the president’s call for the continued collection of phone data but not having the government hold on to it, which could increase privacy concerns. She was also critical of Obama for glossing over the severity of Edward Snowden’s release of secret information.
“Snowden may have walked off with more than a million secret documents that have nothing to do with telephone records, and yet the president devoted just a few sentences to the enormous damage caused by Snowden when he violated his promise to protect classified information,” she said. “Repairing this damage and eliminating the likelihood that someone else could steal other classified information also require urgent reforms.”
Other members of Maine’s congressional delegation welcomed the president’s endorsement of new restraints, but were eager to see more details.
“I’m pleased the president has outlined specific actions to reign in our surveillance programs, but how he will accomplish some of his goals remains to be seen,” said Democrat Mike Michaud, who represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and is running for governor. “As such, I, like many of my colleagues, will insist on strong congressional oversight of the implementation of his reforms. It’s also possible that Congress may have to authorize some of what he seeks to do.”
“Today the president embraced the recommendation that bulk phone data should not be held by the government,” said Sen. Angus King, also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He has proposed an expansion of legislative branch oversight of the bulk data program by automatically recording every time the government accesses it and then reporting that information back to Congress on a quarterly basis. “I look forward to engaging with President Obama and my colleagues on this and other reforms to make certain that effective checks and balances are in place,” King said.
Shenna Bellows, the former head of the Maine ACLU and a Democrat challenging Sen. Susan Collins, was more critical. “The president’s speech falls short of real reform. The minor adjustments to the program will not go far enough to restore our checks and balances.”
The final outcome of the steps Obama outlined have implications for U.S. security and for companies involved in technology, telecommunications and the Internet.
Executives of Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn and AOL joined in a statement of principles last month urging changes in NSA surveillance programs. Phone companies, such as Verizon Communications and AT&T, have resisted being required to retain telephone metadata for the government because of the potential cost and legal exposure.
Obama said electronic snooping will be subject to greater judicial review and that companies and the government will provide more disclosure about what data are gathered.
He gave his attorney general and the NSA 60 days to develop a plan for storing bulk telephone records outside of government custody, one of the most contentious issues arising from the disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The president said he is seeking to balance security and privacy concerns. “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.”
Spying and surveillance have been vital to protecting the nation throughout its history, he said, citing groups of citizens who scouted British troops during the revolution to the Civil War, World War II and the Cold War.
Still, the U.S. traditions and values require that it holds to a higher standard that other powers.
“No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account,” Obama said.
In response to pressure from civil libertarians and technologists to put an independent voice at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Obama is calling for the creation of an outside panel of advocates to weigh in on new and major privacy issues before the court. He is leaving it to Congress to set the rules for what authority and clearances those experts have.
The most concrete and immediate changes announced by Obama will be requiring judicial review for queries of the metadata records. In addition, the government can no longer access records that go beyond two persons removed from the query the government makes.
Under the president’s plan, the U.S. government won’t monitor the communications of leaders of close allies unless there is a compelling national security interest.
While that leaves loopholes for the U.S. government to continue spying on foreign leaders, administration officials who briefed reporters on the president’s plans said the U.S. has already decided not to spy regularly on dozens of foreign heads of state and government. The officials declined to identify foreign leaders by name or country.
“People around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security,” Obama said.
Obama endorsed allowing Internet providers to who receive government requests for data to make more information public than before about those requests.
He did not announce any specifics, and a fact sheet released by the White House indicated those decisions have yet to be made. It said administration officials will continue discussions with the companies.
Obama said he is appointing John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who is joining the Obama White House this year as an adviser, to lead a review of big data and privacy working with industry and science and technology advisers.
He also issued a presidential directive saying the U.S. does not use signals intelligence to provide economic advantage to companies, indiscriminately review e-mails of ordinary people or suppress dissent. The directive says the U.S. uses surveillance for counter intelligence, counter-terrorism, cybersecurity and investigating transnational crime.
The president’s moves are “an attempt to address the concerns that the government holds and accesses too much data, but in many ways, he is leaving the details and mechanics of this to the attorney general and Congress to resolve,” Juan Zarate, a counter-terrorism adviser to former President George W. Bush, said before the speech.
U.S. data collection programs were expanded during Bush’s administration in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with passaged by Congress of the Patriot Act.
Many of the changes will require legislation, which might not get through a divided Congress.