Obama seeks balance with new NSA reforms
By Michael O'Brien, NBC News
(NBC) - President Barack Obama proposed long-awaited overhauls to government surveillance practices on Friday, headlined by reforms in the way the government collects and accesses so-called "meta-data."
"America's capabilities are unique," Obama said in the highly-anticipated speech at the Department of Justice. "That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do."
Obama ordered changes to intelligence-gathering practices so that the government would no longer store broad collections of information on phone and electronic communications. Instead, the president is advocating those records be stored by a third party, although he was not specific about exactly how that would work. If adopted, the proposals represent a step back from the government's claims to wide latitude in the manner in which it maintains national security.
The United States will also have to seek judicial approval going forward before accessing such information. And Congress, as well as the president's Justice Department will play key roles in determining whether any of the president's proposals are enacted.
The reforms represent a response of some of the most explosive revelations by fugitive contractor Edward Snowden, who made details of the NSA's meta-data practices public last year.
Senior administration officials argued to reporters ahead of the president's speech that there had been no abuses to the programs affected by the reforms. Obama ordered the changes, administration officials said, because they "present the risk of potential abuse."
"The men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people," Obama said. "They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails. When mistakes are made – which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise – they correct those mistakes."
Effective immediately, the NSA will have to seek prior approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court before initiating new queries of bulk meta-data.
The president ordered the NSA and Attorney General Eric Holder to develop recommendations over the next 60 days as to how the program should be structured, and how meta-data should be stored. This window coincides with the late March deadline by which Congress must vote to re-authorize many intelligence practices anyway.
The proposal would also seek to add an element of transparency to the meta-data program by giving the FISA court more leeway to declassify its rationales for approving or rejecting the government's data collection requests. Obama will also establish a group of outside advocates for the FISA court in hopes of more effectively protecting individuals' privacy.
Obama's speech in many ways intended to strike a balance between government prerogatives and civil liberties, and the difficulties of pinpointing the precise mixture between the two.
"Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties," he said. "The challenge is getting the details right, and that's not simple."
The president will also seek to reassure heads of states from allied nations that the United States will not seek to monitor their personal communications. This comes in response to revelations last year that the U.S. government had monitored the email of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among other foreign leaders. A senior administration official said that the U.S. will not monitor the communications of heads of states from allied nations "absent a compelling national security purpose."
Obama also took strides toward more clearly defining the nature of U.S. intelligence practices abroad without necessarily changing many of those practices. Obama explained that the U.S. only engages in data collection and surveillance abroad for the purposes of counterintelligence and counterterrorism, and to shore up cybersecurity and disrupt illicit transactions.
The president also emphasized that the United States' intelligence practices isn't used to suppress criticism or dissent or advantage American companies, nor does the U.S. randomly access foreigners' emails at will.
Much of the manner in which the U.S. conducts surveillance and collects intelligence won't change, though.
Obama didn't heed some of the most significant of the 46 recommendations generated by the task force he empaneled last year to study potential changes to the national security and intelligence infrastructure. Though the change to how meta-data is stored was one of the panel's recommendations, Obama will not separate the position of NSA director and the person in charge of monitoring U.S. Cyber Command.
The broader question is whether the reforms and constraints outlined on Friday by Obama will satisfy civil libertarians and broader criticism of the scope of U.S. surveillance.
Some of the revelations made public by Snowden and other self-proclaimed watchdog organizations have eroded domestic support for broad government surveillance. Fifty-six percent of Americans said in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they're concerned about government going too far in violating individuals' privacy, a gradual shift from the days following 9/11, when the public was more willing to give the government broad latitude in the name of counterterrorism.
Congress could also prove disruptive to the president's proposals. In how speech, Obama vowed to "consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views, and then seek congressional authorization for the new program as needed."
Though the administration can initiate some of the reforms immediately, others will require congressional reauthorization. If libertarian-minded lawmakers from both parties aren't satisfied by Obama's reforms – particularly those involving meta-data that will be developed in the coming months by Holder and the NSA – it could spark a fight on
Capitol Hill about whether further constraints are needed on government surveillance practices.
Such a fight would lay bare some of the odd political fault lines when it comes to national security issues, pitting hawkish Democrats and Republicans, joined together, against a handful of progressive Democrats and an ascendant, libertarian-minded wing of the GOP.