President Obama says the NSA’s snooping programs need changes — but he tossed the biggest decisions to Congress, where the tide appears to be running against letting the government continue to scoop and hold Americans’ phone data.
However, the intelligence community does have some important defenders, both on the key oversight committees and within the leadership ranks of Senate Democrats and House Republicans. Their support of continued snooping — and the lack of an easy alternative to the government holding on to Americans’ data — could leave the program intact.
“We have carefully reviewed this program and have found it to be legal and effective,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, said in a joint statement after Mr. Obama’s speech. They chair the intelligence committees in their respective chambers.
Mr. Obama on Friday announced a few immediate changes to the National Security Agency’s program that grabs the phone numbers, times and durations of every phone call made in the U.S. and stores that data for five years.
Under the changes, analysts must submit to court reviews before they are permitted to go through the data, and they will be more limited in how far they can snoop beyond the initial phone number they suspect belongs to someone involved in terrorism.
But the president said more changes are needed to re-establish Americans’ faith in the system.
All sides in the debate are now on the clock.
Mr. Obama gave the Justice Department two months to come back with a proposal for how to shift the phone records so they are no longer held by the government.
Congress, facing November elections, will have to act by late summer or leave the issue for the Congress convening in 2015. But that puts them against another deadline: The section of the Patriot Act that the NSA uses to grab the phone data expires next year.
Opponents of the NSA program said that’s their trump.
“Next year, these authorities expire. And I believe without real reform — not a veneer of reform, but the reform that the president’s panel proposed and that in many ways, the president proposed on Friday — these laws will expire,” Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The sides are also dividing up.
Mrs. Feinstein has pushed through her committee a bill that would officially approve NSA snooping and let the program continue with some additional reporting requirements.
On the other side is an emerging coalition of liberals and conservatives, who are backing a bill that would go the other way and completely outlaw bulk collection of records. That legislation is sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who was chief author of the Patriot Act.
“There’s a concern that we have gone too much into Americans’ privacy,” Mr. Leahy said on “Fox News Sunday.” “There’s still going to be legislation on this.”
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.”
Still, Mr. Obama’s speech last week shows how far the balance has shifted.
“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 changes are a direct result of the leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed that 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, senior White House officials said.
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.”
Privacy advocates hoped Mr. Obama would go further and implement more changes himself. They argue that the government cannot be trusted with data.
The intelligence community and its defenders said Mr. Obama is going too far, and some defenders, including House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Mr. Obama is losing the debate because he mishandled it.
“Because the president has failed to adequately explain the necessity of these programs, the privacy concerns of some Americans are understandable,” said Mr. Boehner. “When considering any reforms, however, keeping Americans safe must remain our top priority. When lives are stake, the president must not allow politics to cloud his judgment.”
Beyond the NSA program, Mr. Obama is calling for other changes.
He said Friday that national security letters, used by the FBI and other government arms to order companies to turn over records in terrorism investigations, should not “remain secret indefinitely.” He told the Justice Department to look into when and how the letters could be released publicly.
He is not, however, calling for judicial review of those letters.
Mr. Obama also directed 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 specialists, to add 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 court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.