Washington • President Barack Obama on Friday ordered changes to the National Security Agency’s domestic and international spying programs, taking away the ability for the agency to collect massive amounts of telephone data of Americans.
The changes, which will need congressional approval, are not expected to affect the NSA’s Utah Data Center.
With NSA chief, General Keith Alexander, sitting in the front row at the Justice Department, Obama said that changes are needed to set an example to other countries and American citizens that government cannot “depend on the good intentions of those in power,” though he also defended members of the intelligence community as patriots.
Obama assigned the NSA to come up with options that would keep the telephony metadata — information such as the numbers called and the frequency and length of calls — out of government control, and said that the agency would have to seek a specific court order to look at that information. The president did not dictate who would hold the call information.
“The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe,” Obama said.
Obama’s proposals come after a government task force found little evidence that collecting the broad telephone data of Americans had been helpful in protecting national security. The program came under fire after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked its existence last year.
Critics • The president’s directive marked the most sweeping changes on surveillance since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spawned a huge growth in intelligence gathering but critics were quick to say his proposal lacked assurances that Americans weren’t being spied on by their own government.
“The president’s speech is an acknowledgment that the current state of government surveillance is untenable, but he hasn’t gone far enough and we still need Congress to act,” said Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who is pushing reforms that would add greater transparency to the NSA’s actions.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., applauded Obama for finally taking on reforms of the NSA but said the details were disappointing.
“President Obama’s announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration,” Paul said. “The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house.”
Obama’s plan also leaves open the question of who would store the telephone records of Americans — the phone companies themselves or a new organization that is independent of the NSA. Analysts with the agency would still be able to tap into the database, though with more restrictions than currently in place.
The president also suggested that Congress set up a new panel of privacy advocates that could sit as a sort of watchdog for the public between the NSA and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves, in secret, the warrants to access information.
The director of the Office of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said Friday that Obama’s reforms are focused on striking the right balance between ensuring intelligence agencies have the tools they need and being transparent and abiding by strict protocols.
“He reminded us that as technology advances, we continue to face new and evolving threats to our national security and must adjust our policies and practices to ensure that our intelligence activities are both necessary and appropriate,” Clapper said in a statement. “To build on and maintain the trust of the American people and our international partners, we must embrace the president’s call for transparency.”
Data centers • Since the bulk of NSA’s eavesdropping involves foreign citizens and countries, the flow of information to its data centers in the United States isn’t likely to change if Obama’s proposals are implemented. The NSA’s Utah Data Center, a massive warehouse of computer servers at the Point of the Mountain, is largely a storage facility for the agency’s international intelligence gathering operations, experts say, and changes to the domestic telephone program should not affect the center’s mission.
While Obama’s speech on Friday was an attempt to cool the debate over the NSA’s spying, groups that have raised concerns with what they say is an illegal overreach say that his efforts are more of a whitewash.
“In a speech about reform, the president announced a policy of preservation,” said David Segal, executive director of the civil liberties group Demand Progress. “What it comes down to is this: The president wants data about every single American to be collected and retained. He wants to normalize practices that sparked mass outrage just last summer. We do not.”