WASHINGTON (CBS DC/AP) — President Barack Obama has called for an end to the bulk collection of cellphone data by the National Security Agency from hundreds of millions of Americans.
Obama wants intelligence agencies to get a secretive court’s permission before accessing the records and also instituted new restrictions about spying on allies.
Speaking before the Justice Department Friday, Obama said that the government will no longer hold the bulk metadata that the NSA acquired from phone companies.
“I have approved a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities, at home and abroad. This guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities,” Obama said. “It will ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances; our trade and investment relationships, including the concerns of America’s companies; and our commitment to privacy and basic liberties. And we will review decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis, so that our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior national security team.”
Obama continued: “In sum, the program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans. Rather, it consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead – phone records that the companies already retain for business purposes. The Review Group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused. And I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.”
Obama described the transition steps he is taking on the NSA’s collection of phone data.
“Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three,” Obama said. “And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.”
Obama is calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to recommend a transfer point for the phone records before March 28, when the collection program comes up for re-authorization.
“Specifically, I am asking the Attorney General and DNI to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government’s ability to retain, search, and use in criminal cases, communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702,” Obama said.
Section 702 allows the U.S. government to intercept the communications of foreign targets overseas who have information that’s important for America’s national security.
Obama said he wants to work with Congress during this transition phase, adding that he is “open to working with Congress to ensure that we build a broad consensus for how to move forward, and am confident that we can shape an approach that meets our security needs while upholding the civil liberties of every American.”
Obama assured that NSA policies have stopped multiple attacks, not only in the U.S., but across the globe.
“Today, new capabilities allow intelligence agencies to track who a terrorist is in contact with, and follow the trail of his travel or funding. New laws allow information to be collected and shared more quickly between federal agencies, and state and local law enforcement. Relationships with foreign intelligence services have expanded, and our capacity to repel cyber-attacks has been strengthened. Taken together, these efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives – not just here in the United States, but around the globe as well,” Obama said.
Obama said there were challenges trying to defend the nation while upholding the civil liberties of Americans.
“[I]n our rush to respond to very real and novel threats, the risks of government overreach – the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security – became more pronounced,” Obama said. “We saw, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our government engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values. As a Senator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.”
The White House has been under fire ever since former defense contractor Edward Snowden revealed how the NSA was collecting phone records of hundreds of millions of Americans and even those of world leaders.
“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,” Obama said. “Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”
Obama said that these new policies he laid out “should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected.”
The president reiterated that the U.S. government is not spying on ordinary citizens.
“The bottom line is that people around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account,” Obama stated. “This applies to foreign leaders as well. Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I have made clear to the intelligence community that – unless there is a compelling national security purpose – we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”
Following Obama’s speech, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., compared what the president said to his health care promise.
“I think what I heard is that if you like your privacy you can keep it,” Paul told CNN.
Paul is filing suit against the Obama administration over the NSA’s data-collection. On his website, he’s urging Americans to join the lawsuit, in his words, “to stop Barack Obama’s NSA from snooping on the American people.”
Paul says that people who want to join the suit are telling the government that it can’t have access to emails and phone records without permission or without a specific warrant.
Paul says the lead lawyer in the suit is Virginia’s former attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said that Obama had to be “dragged kicking and screaming” to the Justice Department to make the speech.
“I find it embarrassing for a head of state to go on for more than 45 minutes and say nothing,” Assange told CNN, adding, “We heard a lot of lies in Obama’s speech.”
Last month, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA program was likely unconstitutional.
Leon said the NSA’s program was “almost Orwellian,” a reference to writer George Orwell’s futuristic novel “1984,” and that there was little evidence the operation had prevented terrorist attacks. He ruled against the government but agreed to postpone shutting down the program until the government appealed, which they did.
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