- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2014

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.

“The telephone metadata program under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. This capability could also prove valuable in a crisis,” he said. “If a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is posed to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort.”

The president also is taking a variety of other steps to increase transparency, but most of his moves will require additional review and it’s unclear when they’ll be implemented, if at all.

Mr. Obama believes national security letters, used by the FBI and other government arms to request information related to national security matters and investigations, should not “remain secret indefinitely” and is asking the Justice Department to look into when and how they could be released publicly.

He is not, however, calling for judicial review of those letters.

Mr. Obama is directing his administration to “review for declassification purposes” all future opinions within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

The president also has called on Congress to establish a “panel of advocates” from the privacy and civil liberties realm, along with technology experts, to add additional perspective to the legal review process of all data queries.

Mr. Obama said such a move will provide “an independent voice in significant cases before” the FISA court.

On the foreign policy front, the president also is making clear the U.S. will not spy on heads of state or other world leaders.

“The president believes those leaders should know when he wants to know what he thinks … he’s going to pick up the phone and call them,” an administration official said.

That specific issue came into the spotlight following widespread reports that the U.S. had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone — allegations that the administration has not denied.