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ALA Response to President Obama’s NSA Reforms

On Friday, January 17, 2014, Barbara Stripling, President of the American Library Association (A.L.A.), released a statement regarding President Barack H. Obama, Junior’s remarks on the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) surveillance program. “After months of calling for more government transparency and public accountability, ALA is encouraged that President Obama recognized the need to reform the National Security Agency’s intrusive surveillance practices. The American Library Association agrees that the systematic and unwarranted collection of surveillance data on millions of unsuspecting Americans must be curtailed, and we support plans to make National Security Letters more transparent. Additionally, we firmly support the creation of a constitutional advocate who will represent privacy concerns before the secret intelligence court.

However, we are cautiously monitoring the Obama Administration to ensure that President Obama’s suggested surveillance changes extend far beyond his speech today. Moving forward, we will continue to advocate for legislative reforms that restore our basic expectations of privacy. We support policy changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the PATRIOT Act, bills that will be considered for reauthorization in 2015. Additionally, the library community fully supports the passage of the USA Freedom Act (H.R.3361), a bill that will improve the balance between terrorism prevention and personal privacy protection.

Every year, millions of Americans turn to libraries for books, resources and online content. These patrons have a right to read and access information, free from government intrusion or censorship. Since passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, libraries have advocated that any surveillance policy must uphold the First and Fourth Amendment rights of innocent Americans. By actively seeking reforms to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, libraries were one of the first groups to publicly oppose the surveillance bill and bring attention to the impact the law could have on American civil liberties.

On Friday, President Obama announced in a policy speech that the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) would no longer spy on heads and chiefs of state of foreign allies. Further, it will no longer collect metadata on domestic telephone calls: lists of which phone numbers millions of Americans called and when people made those calls.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, several news media reported last week that the NSA collects 200,000,000 text messages from around the world every day in its attempt to spy on enemies of the state. Some people consider him a traitor for revealing state secrets, while others consider him a whistleblower.

President Obama expressed displeasure with Snowden, although he would not “dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or his motivations” during the speech. He did, however, comment, “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.”

German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff both expressed anger they were spied on. In Chancellor Merkel’s case, it was her personal cellphone that was tapped.

In President Rousseff’s case, it was both her phone and her e-mail. President Obama said, “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.”

A presidential advisory committee had recommended that a third party such as the phone companies should continue to compile the metadata. However, President Obama did not specify who should have control of the database.

The metadata program was due for re-authorization on Friday, March 28, 2014. President Obama wants U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence agencies to report to him on how to preserve the capacity of the program without federal authorities controlling the database.

Mr. Obama did say that the (Executive Branch of the) U.S. Government should submit to judicial review via the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court every time an intelligence agency wants to consult the database, except in the event of an emergency. He called on Congress to establish a panel of privacy advocates for the court.

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