Obama tightens rules on surveillance
The president said he no longer wants the National Security Agency to maintain a database of such records. But he left the creation of a new system to subordinates and lawmakers, many of whom are divided on the need for reform.
In a speech at the Justice Department, Obama ordered several immediate steps to limit the NSA program that collects domestic phone records, as well as other surveillance practices, which were exposed last year by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama directed that from now on, the government must obtain a court order for each phone number it wants to query in its database. Analysts will only be able to review phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three. And he ordered a halt to eavesdropping on dozens of foreign leaders and governments who are friends or allies.
Obama is retaining the vast majority of intelligence programs and capabilities that came to light over the last six months in a deluge of reports based on leaked documents. Even the most controversial capability - the government's access to bulk telephone records, known as metadata - may well be preserved, although with tighter controls and with the records in the hands of some outside entity.
The database holds phone numbers and call lengths and times, but not actual phone call content.
Obama recognized that others have raised alternatives, such as moving custodianship of the records to the phone companies or an independent third party - and that such plans face significant logistical and political hurdles.
He gave subordinates including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. until March 28 to develop a plan to "transition" the bulk data out of the possession of the government. Existing authorities for the phone records program are set to expire on that date, requiring a reauthorization by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
Both in his speech and in the specifics of his plan, Obama straddled competing security and civil liberties imperatives. His proposals are aimed at containing a public backlash triggered by Snowden, but also preserving capabilities that U.S. intelligence officials consider critical to preventing another attack.
Reaction to Obama's call to end the phone records collection was mixed and underscored the political challenge he faces in achieving his goal.
The chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees issued a joint statement focusing on Obama's remarks that "underscored the importance of using telephone metadata to rapidly identify possible terrorist plots." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) added that they have reviewed the existing NSA bulk collection program and "found it to be legal and effective," indicating they would oppose efforts to end it.
"Ending this dragnet collection will go a long way toward restoring Americans' constitutional rights and rebuilding the public's trust," Sens. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), Mark Udall (D., Colo.), and Martin Heinrich (D., N.M.) said in a joint statement. "Make no mistake, this is a major milestone in our long-standing efforts to reform the National Security Agency's bulk collection program."
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), a House Intelligence Committee member who opposes bulk collection, said he thought that ultimately the NSA would have to transition to a model in which the government seeks data from phone companies with a court order, much as they would have before the program began in 2001.
But civil liberties groups said Obama failed to advance real reform by leaving open the door to third-party storage of records and data retention mandates.
"He doesn't commit to ending the bulk data collection of telephone records," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He gets close to understanding the concerns, but he backs away from the real reform, which is to end the bulk data collection. He gets to the finish line, but he doesn't cross it."
Romero said he was trying to bridge irreconcilable positions: "Clearly this is a president who wants to agree with the criticism of the bulk data collection and retention, and yet wishes to retain that power notwithstanding the serious concerns," he said. "And you can't have it both ways."
John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director, said Obama "was trying to find a midway here.' " Obama's dilemma, he said, is responding to dual challenges: the perception that the program might one day be abused, and the reality that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are growing stronger. "So as president, he's got to think, 'I don't want to take any chances here.' "
U.S. Surveillance Policy
A look at some of the changes the president is proposing regarding surveillance programs:
Phone records storage
Effective immediately, the National Security Agency will be required to get a secretive court's permission before accessing phone records that are collected from hundreds of millions of Americans, except in emergencies. Those records, which include numbers dialed and call lengths but not the content of calls, are currently stored by the government. But President Obama is calling for that to change. He is directing the attorney general and the intelligence community to come up with a new plan for another party to store the data.
National security letters
No longer will national security letters be kept secret indefinitely. Federal law enforcement officers issue these letters to banks, phone companies and others, demanding customer information, and the recipients are currently barred from disclosing that they've received the requests. Under Obama's proposal, if the government can't establish the need to keep the letters secret, the secrecy will be lifted after a set time period. The White House says providers receiving the letters will be able to make more information about them available publicly than ever before.
Spying on leaders overseas
Revelations that the U.S. monitored the communications of friendly heads of state have sparked outrage overseas. Going forward, the U.S. won't monitor the communications of "our close friends and allies overseas" unless there's a compelling national security purpose.
Spying on foreigners
Obama is issuing a presidential directive that outlines what the government uses intelligence for, and what purposes are prohibited. The directive says intelligence can't be used to suppress criticism, to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies, or to discriminate against people based on factors like race, gender or sexual orientation. Obama is also proposing to extend to foreigners some protections against spying that U.S. citizens enjoy.