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Obama defends NSA programs in speech offering reforms

In a speech that Americans have been waiting more than six months for President Barack Obama announced changes to the National Security Agency (NSA) mass surveillance programs on Friday, Jan. 17, 2013. President Obama delivered his 45-minute speech at the Justice department where he focused on both national security and civil liberties. With that in mind the President announced changes in the NSA's programs that he hoped will both maintain national security and are more considerate to American civil liberties quelling over six months of criticism. Despite President Obama spending most his speech announcing the reforms, he did not drastically curtail or overhaul the program, only introducing only modest changes limiting government collecting and access to the information.

President Barack Obama delivers a major speech announcing reforms to National Security Agency's surveillance programs, Jan. 17, 2014; Obama is trying to balance national security and civil liberties
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

The extent of the National Security Agency surveillance program has been a major issue this past year and a point of criticism for the Obama Administration, both at home and abroad because of Edward J. Snowden revealing private details of the program to the press and the public. NSA's data collection program collected not only the metadata relating to Americans daily communications including phone calls, emails, chats and text messages, but kept a close eye on foreign leaders including those that are supposed to be the country's closest allies. After the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies report was released in December 2013 that was critical of the NSA's programs while offering suggestions for improvements, President Obama promised to consider and delineate any possible revisions to the program in January and Obama's speech and reforms are the culmination.

President Obama's speech first began as a defense of collecting intelligence for national surety reasons giving examples from the time of America's founding through to the end of the cold war. Obama recounted that the President Harry S. Truman created the National Security to deal with the Cold War. However, 9/11 made the NSA and data collection even more important and essential to national security; "Our agencies suddenly needed to do far more than the traditional mission of monitoring hostile powers and gathering information for policymakers. Instead, they were now asked to identify and target plotters in some of the most remote parts of the world, and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by their very nature, cannot be easily penetrated with spies or informants."

Obama admitted NSA's over reach, but also firmly justified it, stating; "In our rush to respond to very real and novel threats, the risks of government overreach - the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security - became more pronounced. This is particularly true when surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws." The President also justified the program based on America's world standing and responsibility; "A number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world's only superpower; that our intelligence capabilities are critical to meeting these responsibilities, and that they themselves have relied on the information we obtain to protect their own people."

The President explained that is important to maintain a balance between national security needs and respecting civil liberties; "We have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals - and our Constitution - require."

The President spent most his speech delineating reforms to the surveillance programs relating to both data collected domestically and abroad. These proposals related specifically to metadata collection part of "Section 215 of the Patriot Act." President Obama's proposals will not only end the NSA unlimited ability to collect American telephone data and access that information, but will also lead to keeping the data under the control of a more neutral third body. As Obama announced; "I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata."

Obama wanted to make it clear to Americans that the reforms are not because of Snowden's revelations over the past couple of months, but rather stem his own speech in May 2013, a month before Snowden's name became forever entangled with the NSA surveillance programs. The President explained; "I believed a fresh examination of our surveillance programs was a necessary next step in our effort to get off the open-ended war footing that we've maintained since 9/11. And for these reasons, I indicated in a speech at the National Defense University last May that we needed a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty. Of course, what I did not know at the time is that within weeks of my speech, an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures would spark controversies at home and abroad that have continued to this day."

Elaborating on Snowden President Obama condemned his actions as very much threatening the U.S. and its security; "If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, 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."

Obama clarified to the public again that "This program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the names of people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of calls -- metadata that can be queried." The NSA will require the court's permission to access the database of phone call metadata; "I have directed the attorney general to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency."

The President has asked Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to examine methods to "restrict" the government data collection. Obama is also asking them to create a report about how to deal with all the data that NSA collected including transferring the databases to the responsibility and holding of a third party with a report due by Mar. 28, 2014. Obama explained; "They will report back to me with options for alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28th."

The President reluctantly intends to have the telephone companies themselves to hold on to the data, stating "the providers or a third party retain the bulk records, with government accessing information as needed." In the interim until Holder's report is complete President Obama intends to involve with Congress; "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."

Additionally, the NSA will no longer be able to monitor calls from callers that are thrice removed from a suspect number, which are called "hops"; "Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three." This will curtail phone call data the NSA monitors.

President Obama's plans also include ending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court's unchecked authority, where they never refused a surveillance request. To counter that the President is "calling on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court." Obama also hopes to declassify some of the court's opinions and asked Holder and Clapper to review them.

The advisory report released in December suggested the FBI be required the court's approval to when they use National Security Letters to access business data in an investigation. The President decided against this proposal and instead Obama left Holder to further suggest a solution stating that he "therefore directed the Attorney General to amend how we use national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy."

To deal with overseas surveillance and data collection, Obama issued a "presidential directive" which "makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes, and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary people." President Obama also instructed, Holder and Clapper "to develop these safeguards, which will limit the duration that we can hold personal information, while also restricting the use of this information." These safeguards will protect the data of "foreign individuals overseas" making sure there are time limits for keeping their and only used specifically for national security.

As he has done in other speeches on the issue, President Obama tried to reassure the American public and those overseas that the U.S. government is not watching them and since it was revealed that the NSA program extended to foreign leaders, Obama added them to his reassurance. The President speaking of "non-Americans overseas," stated; "The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures. This applies to foreign leaders as well."

The President did not promise that all world leaders would be exempt from surveillance only those "Heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners." Continuing, Obama stated the only exception is "Unless there is a compelling national security purpose - we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies. And I've instructed my national security team, as well as the intelligence community, to work with foreign counterparts to deepen our coordination and cooperation in ways that rebuild trust going forward."

President Obama also promised that from now the NSA programs will be reviewed annually to keep them in check. Obama announced some that he is "making some important changes to how our government is organized." Obama is creating two positions; "The State Department will designate a senior officer to coordinate our diplomacy on issues related to technology and signals intelligence. We will appoint a senior official at the White House to implement the new privacy safeguards that I have announced today. I will devote the resources to centralize and improve the process we use to handle foreign requests for legal assistance, keeping our high standards for privacy while helping foreign partners fight crime and terrorism. I have also asked my counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy."

President Obama concluded his speech stating the U.S. is held at a higher standard regarding civil liberties, and the reforms he presented would better balance national security with those expected liberties; "One thing I'm certain of: This debate will make us stronger. And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead. It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard…. We are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity…. Together, let us chart a way forward that secures the life of our nation while preserving the liberties that make our nation worth fighting for."

After all public opposition the President hopes that the reforms he proposed will be enough to satisfy all the critics both at home and abroad about NSA's overreaching surveillance programs and data collection. Obama expressed in his address; "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."

However, initial reaction to the speech and the President's vague proposals and further studies indicate that reforms are not enough for Americans, Congress or civil liberties groups, while for some members of Congress the reforms go too far. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was pleased with the reforms; "These proposed reforms will go a long way towards putting the imperatives of national security and personal liberty into an appropriate and sustainable balance." But Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, R-OH seemed opposed to the changes, explaining; "The House will review any legislative reforms proposed by the administration. But we will not erode the operational integrity of critical programs that have helped keep America safe."

Both conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats oppose the NSA's far reaching programs. Conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, who has widely criticized the NSA programs and leading his own legal battle against the NSA, responded; "President Obama's announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration…. The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house." On the opposite end of the spectrum Rep. Peter Welch, D-VT summed it up best when he stated, "the steps he announced today fall short of reining in the NSA." Although Obama had hoped his proposals would be the end of the "debate," most just see as a starting off point, and with legal cases still pending, the argument between the NSA and civil liberties will probably be decided by the Supreme Court.


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