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Obama proposes new limits on NSA phone collections

By Julie Pace

AP White House Correspondent

LAST UPDATED: 09:20 a.m. HST, Jan 17, 2014

WASHINGTON » Seeking to calm a furor over U.S. surveillance, President Barack Obama today called for ending the government's control of phone data from hundreds of millions of Americans and immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get a secretive court's permission before accessing such records. Still, he defended the nation's spying apparatus as a whole, saying the intelligence community was not "cavalier about the civil liberties of our fellow citizens."

The president also directed America's intelligence agencies to stop spying on friendly international leaders and called for extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens whose communications are scooped up by the U.S.

Obama said the U.S. had a "special obligation" to re-examine its intelligence capabilities because of the potential for trampling on civil liberties.

"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 in his highly anticipated speech at the Justice Department.

"This debate will make us stronger," he declared. "In this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead."

Obama's announcements capped the review that followed former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden's leaks about secret surveillance programs. If fully implemented, the president's proposals would lead to significant changes to the NSA's bulk collection of phone records, which is authorized under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

Even with Obama's decisions, key questions about the future of the surveillance apparatus remain. While Obama wants to strip the NSA of its ability to store the phone records, he offered no recommendation for where the data should be moved. Instead, he gave the intelligence community and the attorney general 60 days to study options, including proposals from a presidential review board that recommended the telephone companies or an unspecified third party.

Civil libertarians said Obama did not go far enough to protect privacy and prevent abuse. Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said, "President Obama's surveillance adjustments will be remembered as music on the Titanic unless his administration adopts deeper reforms."

"Shifting the storage of information does not address the fundamental problem: the collection of mass personal data in the first place," Hawkins said in a statement.

There appeared to be some initial confusion about Congress' role in authorizing any changes. An administration official said Obama could codify the data transfer through an executive order, while some congressional aides said legislation would be required.

Congress would have to approve another proposal from the president that would establish a panel of outside attorneys who would consult with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on new legal issues that arise. The White House says the panel would advocate for privacy and civil liberties as the court weighed requests for accessing the phone records.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a leading congressional civil liberties advocate, said he was disappointed in the changes. He said it's unconstitutional to search email and phone records without a warrant and he will continue to challenge the NSA's spying programs.

"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 henhouse."

The moves are more sweeping than many U.S. officials had been anticipating. People close to the White House review process say Obama was still grappling with the key decisions on the phone record collections in the days leading up to today's speech.

Obama only briefly mentioned Snowden, whose disclosures are largely credited with sparking the White House review.

"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.

While the president has said he welcomed the review of the nation's sweeping surveillance programs, it's all but certain the study would not have happened without the leaks. Snowden faces espionage charges in the U.S., but is currently living in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum. Some privacy advocates have pressed Obama to grant Snowden amnesty or a plea deal if he returns to the U.S., but the White House has so far dismissed those ideas.

The surveillance revelations have caused particular anger abroad, especially over disclosures that the U.S. was monitoring the communications of friendly foreign leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama said new guidelines will cut back on foreign leader monitoring, expect when there is a compelling national security interest.

"The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance," Obama said.

The president's changes are expected to be met with pushback from some in the intelligence community, who have been pressing him to keep the surveillance programs largely intact.

The administration did not uncover any government abuse of the intelligence programs during its review process, officials said. But they said the president's decision-making was colored by the potential for abuses as surveillance technology becomes increasingly powerful.

Many of the president's recommendations were aimed at increasing the public's trust in the spying operations. That includes lifting some of the secrecy surrounding the demands that might be sent to companies for data on customers involved in a national security investigation. The White House says those demands, called "national security letters," will no longer remain secret indefinitely, unless the government establishes a need for the secrecy when they are being used in an investigation.

Roughly 20,000 such letters are sent yearly by the FBI to banks, telecommunication companies and other businesses, but recipients are barred from disclosing anything about them. Obama wants to change that and allow some of the information to be made public.

The president is also ordering the Justice Department and the Director of National Intelligence to look for ways to declassify future opinions from the FISA court.

Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, Nedra Pickler and Pete Yost contributed to this report.

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hikine wrote:
This says nothing will change! Sounds more like rhetoric. Even the judges who are part of this national security' will always side with the NSA because the program is under the Patriot Act which gives the NSA to exercise full power to 'secure' the US from terrorism. Some people will say there's no fear if you have nothing to hide but they miss the point of WHY are they doing this in the first place? It's like the government wants to see what you've been doing akin to a peeping tom!
on January 17,2014 | 02:58AM
aomohoa wrote:
I agree with you. People can call Snowden a traitor. I think he was very brave to bring this all into the light. The NSA is wasting the tax payers money with their black budget by monitoring the American public unnecessarily. They need to concentrate on terrorists. If they want to monitor things like Facebook, why can't they do something about domestic terrorism, like students shooting other students.I'm sure these kids are on Facebook talking about what they are planning to do. People posting pics of kittens don't need to be followed by the NSA. I think that Obama is not really going to change anything when it comes to the NSA. He just wants to make the people feel better about the issue, so it will go away.
on January 17,2014 | 09:00AM
pj737 wrote:
So what if you're a kitten-loving terrorist?
on January 17,2014 | 12:46PM
pcman wrote:
IRT hikine on change. I agree. Currently, every intelligence collector, analyst, supervisor and manager, totaling tens of thousands of personnel, already perform intelligence oversight. Add another for oversight is peanuts. Shifting the metadata to another agency, contractor or civilian organization is worse for security and control. The only change that would be meaningful is to eliminate the metadata program and that would only help terrorists.
on January 17,2014 | 09:37AM
kuroiwaj wrote:
Aloha Hikine, I disagree. There will be changes to the Patriot Act and to Administrative NSA Policies now that President Obama has been exposed by American hero Mr. Snowden. I continue to have faith in America and its leaders to do the right thing. Transparency will now be legislated.
on January 17,2014 | 09:55AM
RichardCory wrote:
"Transparency will now be legislated."

No, it won't. The NSA will still be under the jurisdiction of a secret court with a secret body of law. Until you, I, or anyone else has free and open access to see how these courts are making their decisions, this is still just a sham and a farce.
on January 17,2014 | 11:48AM
kuroiwaj wrote:
Hi Richard, at least we have an opportunity to argue the opposite position in the FISA Court, if law is approved by Congress. The challenge is making the FISA Court's decisions open to the public. For now, let's be supportive for the future. The FISA Court today listens only to the NSA.
on January 17,2014 | 02:00PM
peanutgallery wrote:
Obama; what a mistake America.
on January 17,2014 | 03:43AM
localguy wrote:
Really? How about the failed times of the "Bush Brothers" which drove our economy into the ground. Really?
on January 17,2014 | 06:19AM
beachbum11 wrote:
Not as bad.
on January 17,2014 | 08:44AM
aomohoa wrote:
Why don't you stick to the comment. You sound like a child.
on January 17,2014 | 09:00AM
puamamane wrote:
Still blamming Bush, still?? I guess understand........that's the only defense you worshipers have when it comes to this Pres.
on January 17,2014 | 09:07AM
lee1957 wrote:
Obama's perfomance has nothing to do with any other President. "He sucks worse" might be a valid opinion but hardly a yardstick for BHO's performance.
on January 17,2014 | 10:46AM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
Have you forgotten who signed the Patriot Act?
on January 17,2014 | 10:36AM
HD36 wrote:
You're right and that's why it's obvious that both parties represent the same bosses through the same lobbysts. Reminds me of a fake wrestling match where they pretend to fight but they both have the same outcome in mind.
on January 17,2014 | 12:04PM
false wrote:
is bush still president?
on January 17,2014 | 08:47AM
lee1957 wrote:
Must be Jeb, given the Bush brothers reference. I thought them made men's clothes.
on January 17,2014 | 10:46AM
false wrote:
baaaa baaaa
on January 17,2014 | 08:47AM
retire wrote:
Facist, pure and simple.
on January 17,2014 | 09:19AM
DAGR81 wrote:
Who cares what he says already?
on January 17,2014 | 10:53AM
HD36 wrote:
The NSA would be a great tool to supress any anti government uprising should the economy collapse because of 32 years of Federal Reserve interest rate pegging and fiscal policy that has trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. The question is wether they see it coming and created the NSA, TSA, Obamacare, etc.. to complete the centrally planned state, or it's just a bunch of safety concerned overzealous beurocrats? Probably both.
on January 17,2014 | 12:10PM
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