Obama Promises Changes to NSA Telephone Data Collection


WASHINGTON (Jan. 18, 2014)—President Barack Obama said Friday that he would restrict the National Security Agency’s ability to query the telephone data of millions of Americans in a much-anticipated speech on U.S. surveillance policies.

While a review of the call data program is conducted, the president will require intelligence agencies to get permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before accessing bulk telephone collections. Obama said he would temporarily leave the data in the hands of the NSA until other options are found.

“The power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do,” Obama said, in a speech at the Department of Justice. “That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”

But Obama also defended the need for the programs.

“What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale – not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” Obama said.

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin agreed with the need for more oversight, saying that a balance needs to be struck

“We may need to tighten up the rules to make sure that information collected is only used where there is specific information that satisfies the legal standards,” Cardin said.

In a statement, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, and the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called the men and women who work at the NSA patriots.

“I agree with many of the President’s recommendations for reform. I believe the solution to regaining the public’s trust will center on strengthening oversight, promoting transparency and safeguarding Americans’ civil liberties,” Ruppersberg said. “These are not mutually exclusive goals – privacy and security can and must be protected simultaneously.”

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, and the state’s only Republican member of Congress, called storage of data on private citizens without adequate probable cause “a violation of constitutional rights.”

“We’re still sorting through what the final details are in how he’s going to restrict the gathering of data on private individuals,” Harris said. “Overall, I’m going to see what this overhaul is going to look like when all is said and done.”

While Obama did not propose a plan for where the phone records should be relocated, he did set March 28 as the deadline for the attorney general and members of the intelligence community to recommend an alternative holding place.

The president sought a middle ground between the sweeping recommendations made by a five-member White House appointed board, and the interests of the country’s intelligence agencies. He also sought to quell concerns from world leaders.

“The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance,” Obama said.

In speaking both to the American public and to the international community, the president spoke of the country’s importance as a superpower with “special responsibilities” to keep world order.

Cardin expressed concern that the United States was getting information on foreign allies.

“This can be extremely compromising in relations we have with other countries,” Cardin said.

Obama also agreed with a recommendation that public advocates be appointed to represent citizen interests at Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court secret hearings, and he called on Congress to authorize such a change. His recommendation contradicts a letter written this week by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates on behalf of the 11 judges on the FISA court that called the reform "unnecessary” and possibly “counterproductive."

Paul Rosenzsweig of the Heritage Foundation said the technology-heavy aspect of the issue could be a roadblock on the Hill.

“I am skeptical that Congress will be able to do anything big in this area,” Rosenzsweig said. “My prediction is that they’ll do something very small and try to make it look big.”

The conversation on national security measures was sparked by leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden just over seven months ago.

In his speech, the president chastised Snowden, saying “our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets.”

“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,” he said.

While working for the agency, Snowden downloaded 1.7 million internal NSA documents, making him the biggest one-time secret-stealer in U.S. history, according to leaders of the House Intelligence Committee who reviewed a classified Pentagon report.

The contractor revealed bulk collection of foreign and domestic phone records, direct government access to information from the nation’s biggest technology companies, close monitoring of foreign leaders, and the collection of online metadata, an action deemed unconstitutional by one federal judge.

The revelations haven’t stopped. Friday, The Guardian of Britain reported that the NSA collects nearly 200 million text messages per day from around the world, including ones that divulge financial transactions and where people are traveling.

Until Snowden’s revelations began pouring in, the NSA remained largely, and comfortably, in the shadows, despite being one of the largest U.S. intelligence agencies in terms of budget and personnel.

Chartered in 1953 and based out of Ft. Meade, the NSA was created to eavesdrop on foreign adversaries, as well as to support U.S. military operations. In 2012, the NSA said more than 30,000 employees work at Ft. Meade and other facilities, although the exact number is officially classified.

J. Kirk Wiebe, who worked for the NSA for more than 32 years, and now advocates for transparency and oversight, said the agency has a long history of spying on Americans.

Last year, The National Security Archive at George Washington University released information revealing that the NSA secretly tapped into overseas phone calls of outspoken Vietnam War critics in the 1960s. Targets included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and two U.S. senators.

“It isn’t whether or not they’re abusing the power, but the fact that they have it,” Wiebe said.

It is “not good enough to pass legislation and tell the NSA what it can and cannot do. That’s been tried and has failed,” he said.

Capital News Service reporters Justine McDaniel and Antonio Franquiz contributed to this report.

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