President Barack Obama today announced a series of reforms for a controversial National Security Agency data-collection program that he said would give Americans confidence their privacy is being protected and allow U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to continue safeguarding the nation.
The president delivered remarks at the Department of Justice, presenting results of the administration’s review of U.S. signals intelligence programs, seven months after some of the NSA’s most sensitive surveillance programs were leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In December, the president’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies recommended more than 40 changes at the NSA in a wide-ranging report.
Obama also issued a presidential policy directive about U.S. SIGINT activities that he said will clearly prescribe what the United States does and does not do with respect to overseas surveillance.
And he said he has made clear to the intelligence community that the United States will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of its close friends and allies unless there is a compelling national security purpose.
“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.
“Whether it’s the ability of individuals to communicate ideas, to access information … or to forge bonds with people on other sides of the globe,” he added, “technology is remaking what is possible for individuals and for institutions, and for the international order.”
Over the last six months the president said he has created the outside Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to make recommendations for reform, consulted with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates and industry leaders, and with those in his administration has considered how to approach intelligence in an era of diffuse threats and technological revolution.
Everyone who examined the problems, Obama said, recognizes that the United States has real enemies and threats and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them. They also recognized that challenges to privacy do not come from government alone, the president said.
“Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes,” Obama said. “That’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer and your smartphone periodically. But all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance must be higher.”
Among the reforms, Obama approved a new presidential directive for SIGINT activities at home and abroad.
The guidance, he said, will strengthen executive branch oversight of intelligence activities and ensure that the United States takes into account security requirements and alliances, trade and investment relationships, and a commitment to privacy and basic liberties.
Every year the administration will review decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets, the president said. The reforms will also provide greater transparency about surveillance activities and fortify safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.
“Since we began this review, including information being released today, we’ve declassified over 40 opinions and orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides judicial review of some of our most sensitive intelligence activities, including the Section 702 program targeting foreign individuals overseas and the Section 215 telephone metadata program,” Obama said.
The president said he is directing the Director of National Intelligence, along with the attorney general, to annually review and when possible declassify future opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with broad privacy implications and report to the president and Congress on the efforts.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he fully support Obama’s outlined reforms as the defense secretary and as former co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and a former member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“These programs must always balance the need to defend our national security with the responsibility to preserve America’s individual liberties and the president’s decisions and recommendations will do that,” Hagel said.
“They will help restore the confidence of the American people and our allies and partners, they will preserve important capabilities that keep us safe,” he added, “and they will help the men and women of America’s military continue to accomplish their missions all over the world.”
Obama also is calling on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the court.
And the administration will provide more protections for activities conducted under Section 702, which allows the government to intercept the communications of foreign targets overseas who have information that is important for U.S. national security.
The FBI relies in during investigations on National Security Letters, which can require companies to provide information to the government without revealing the orders to the subject under investigation.
But in the interest of transparency, Obama said he has directed the attorney general to amend how the letters are used so such secrecy will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.
And the administration will let communications providers make public more information about the orders they receive to provide data to the government, Obama said.
Regarding reforms of Section 215, the bulk collection of telephone records, Obama repeated that the program does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of callers.
The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11 and was designed to map the communications of terrorists, the president said, and it consolidates the phone records into a database the government can query if it has a specific lead.
“The Review Group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused and I believe it is important that the capability this program is designed to meet is preserved,” Obama said, adding that he thinks critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards such a program could be used to give more information about private lives and open the door to more intrusive bulk-collection programs in the future.
“I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk-metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata,” the president said.
Because more must be done to determine how a new system will work, Obama has ordered that the transition proceed in two steps:
1. Starting now, investigators will pursue only phone calls that are two steps removed, rather than three, from a number associated with a terrorist organization. Obama directed the attorney general to work with the FIS Court so during the transition the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.
2. Obama said he told the intelligence community and the attorney general to use this transition period to develop options for a new approach in which the government doesn’t hold the metadata but that matches capabilities and fills the gaps the Section 215 program was designed to address.
The president said officials will report back to him with options before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28, and meanwhile Obama will consult with congressional committees and then seek congressional authorization for the new program.
To make sure the reforms are put in place, Obama said he is making important changes to how the government is organized.
The State Department will designate a senior officer to coordinate diplomacy on technology and SIGINT issues, the White House will appoint a senior official to implement the new privacy safeguards, and the president will devote resources to centralize and improve the process used to handle foreign requests for legal assistance, “keeping our high standards for privacy while helping foreign partners fight crime and terrorism,” he said.
Obama also has asked his counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensive review of privacy and big data, a term describing a massive volume of structured and unstructured data that is difficult to process using traditional database and software techniques.
“While the reforms that I have announced will point us in a new direction, I am mindful that more work will be needed in the future,” Obama said. “One thing I’m certain of: this debate will make us stronger. And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead.”
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