Obama calls for immediate checks, long-term changes to NSA snooping

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The NSA will now have to go to a judge before snooping through Americans’ phone records, President Obama announced Friday as he set an eventual goal of prying the phone metadata information away from the intelligence community altogether.

But Mr. Obama, in a speech at the Justice Department, said it will take negotiations between Congress, government lawyers and the intelligence community to figure out all the details about who will end up storing the phone data and how it will be used.

In addition, government analysts will only be able to query information “two hops” removed from the person being investigated. The government currently can gather information three steps removed, and the change is meant to limit how many Americans are swept up in far-reaching data-collection efforts.

“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,” Mr. Obama said. “I recognize that there are additional issues that require further debate … I am open to working with Congress to ensure that we build a 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.”

The specific changes fall short of what privacy advocates had hoped for, but go further than what the intelligence community’s defenders had wanted.

The changes are a direct result of the leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed the National Security Agency was gathering and storing the numbers, lengths and dates of most calls made inside the U.S. The leaks set off a firestorm of criticism and led the White House to appoint a panel to review U.S. surveillance and data-collection practices and offer recommendations on how to change and improve them.

Effective immediately, analysts at the NSA cannot query phone-record databases and other pools of information without specific judicial review of each individual case, according to senior White House officials.

There is, however, a loophole.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama said the database “can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.” It’s unclear what will constitute a “true emergency.”

For now, the government will continue to house that data but the president is calling on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., congressional leaders and other stakeholders to develop a plan for retaining it in another manner, outside government control. The president believes “the government should not be in the business of holding this type of data,” senior administration officials said.

Mr. Holder, the NSA and other arms of the U.S. intelligence community, in consultation with Congress, are to report back within 60 days with specific recommendations on how that data can be kept without infringing on Americans’ privacy rights.

White House officials specifically raised the possibility of telephone companies or other third parties keeping the information but made clear that “those options also present themselves other complications and other issues, some of them related to privacy concerns.”

In the interim, the president said he will continue seeking outside input.

“During this period, I will consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views, and then seek congressional authorization for the new program as needed,” Mr. Obama said.

Despite the changes, the president also offered a passionate defense of the program itself.

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