WASHINGTON — President Obama proposed new safeguards for the government’s vast surveillance of communications in the U.S. and abroad, adding more judicial review and disclosure requirements, but largely leaving in place programs that he said were needed to “remain vigilant in the face of threats.”
In a speech Friday meant to quell concerns about U.S. spy practices, Obama said he recognized the unease many Americans have felt in the seven months since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden began to reveal details about the NSA’s activities.
The president pledged greater transparency and acknowledged that leaders could not simply say: “Trust us; we won’t abuse the data we collect.”
But Obama staunchly defended the nation’s intelligence agencies, saying they had not misused their vast powers in the effort to detect and disrupt terrorist plots.
After repeated reviews, the president said, nothing he had learned “indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens…. They are not abusing authority in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails.”
He reminded listeners the country faces “real enemies and threats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them.”
His proposals drew warm reviews from intelligence officials and expressions of disappointment from many civil liberties activists and some prominent technology company executives.
Under Obama’s plan, the NSA will still have broad authority to intercept email and other Internet communications overseas, even when its dragnet pulls in the communications of Americans who are corresponding with foreigners. Intelligence officials say this power, much more than the telephone database, has been key to counter-terrorism investigations.
He proposed more significant changes for the program that has generated the most public controversy: the government’s database on nearly all telephone calls in the U.S., which shows when calls took place and which numbers are connected to which other numbers.
Under Obama’s plan, the government would no longer hold the database, but he left undecided who would. Telephone companies have resisted taking on the cost and liability of holding the data themselves, and some prominent members of Congress say that having a private party involved would increase the risk of leaks and other problems.
Obama gave the Justice Department and the director of national intelligence until March 28 to decide who would hold the data. He left unanswered the question of whether the government would continue to collect the data if no solution were found. Officials said that issue had not yet been decided.
In a related decision, Obama surprised some intelligence officials by directing that for now, they must seek a judge’s approval before mining the voluminous cache of records.
The president added that directive to his speech less than a day before delivery, officials said. But that last-minute move was an exception. Most of Obama’s proposals resulted from months of negotiations within the administration and were carefully honed to avoid interfering with the work of the intelligence community.
“We think these are reasonable, moderate steps,” said one senior intelligence official who was involved in negotiations with the White House and asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.
By contrast, civil liberties advocates and officials of technology companies had hoped Obama would go further in curtailing surveillance.
Obama said nothing about two of the technology industry’s biggest concerns: the government’s efforts to defeat encryption of communications, and its exploitation of so-called back doors that allow access to computer programs. Technology firms worry they may lose business to overseas competitors if customers think they are too susceptible to NSA eavesdropping.
In one move that had been urged by civil liberties groups, Obama said he wanted to set up a panel of privacy advocates who could counter the positions of government lawyers before the special court that oversees intelligence gathering. Currently, the judges hear only from one side of the argument. But the public advocates would be called only in cases involving broad policy issues, not in the majority of proceedings, he said.
Obama sought to reassure a global audience that the NSA would no longer spy on the heads of allied governments, but left open the possibility of such eavesdropping if needed for a “compelling national security purpose.”
He also issued a policy directive ordering intelligence agencies to provide limited new protections for the privacy rights of foreign people.
“People around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people,” Obama said. And he defended the U.S. against criticism from abroad. Many governments that have criticized U.S. spying do the same or more, he said, calling the debate over surveillance in the U.S. a sign of a healthy democracy.