Speaking from the Department of Justice on Friday, President Barack Obama recommended changes to the way the National Security Agency collects data from phone records of US citizens, including the requirement of a court-ordered warrant to access the information to lessen government control.
Obama announced his "new presidential directive both at home and abroad," which will strengthen oversight and be reviewed on an annual basis.
The president asked Attorney General Eric Holder to meet with intelligence officials and formulate a plan for transitioning the storage of data from the NSA to a third-party entity by March 28, when it comes up for reimplementation.
Then Congress will be asked to authorize reforms to data storage that will not open the information to abuse by a third party, but where and how are still big questions.
Reforms won’t be easy to find a balance between liberty, protection and privacy, said the president, but he supports annual reviews on surveillance policies for the future.
“The challenge is in getting the details right and that isn’t simple,” said Obama.
The president tried to thread the needle between the need for national security and the need for people to feel secure in their privacy.
In addition, Obama will engage Congress to deliberate on the proper limitations for collecting phone records. He plans to appoint a public advocate for privacy interests to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
"Challenges posed by terrorism and cyber attacks aren't going away," said the president.
Obama’s speech has been expected for months as the White House continued to grapple with revelations on the depth of NSA spying activities revealed after Edward Snowden stole 1.7 million documents during his work as an NSA contractor before fleeing to Hong Kong last year.
Obama mentioned Snowden, but also reminded everyone that he brought up the need for NSA reforms a month before classified documents were leaked.
“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 said.
The NSA collection of phone data began after 9/11 under then-President George W. Bush, with the goal of preventing terrorism and Obama said it has prevented attacks on US and foreign soil, but admitted the need for policy reform. The program, which collects numbers dialed, length and frequency of calls, came under court supervision in 2006.
Analysts disagree with claims the federal government listens in on private calls and reads personal emails, because data is supposed to be only accessed in suspected terrorism cases.
NSA officials claim metadata collection is an important part of their defense against attacks on the US and the president agreed on Friday they can't operate effectively without secrecy.
Obama said the US would stop listening in on phone calls of its allies.
Nonetheless, The Guardian published an article that led with this paragraph: "Europeans were largely underwhelmed by Barack Obama's speech on limited reform of US espionage practices, saying the measures did not go far enough to address concerns over American snooping on its European allies."
The report included reactions from leaders in the European Union, Germany, UK and Brazil.
The president spoke for almost an hour and said it would not be the last conversation about NSA surveillance programs because it is important for the US government to remain anchored in set of checks and balances.
Obama received a mixed reaction from US lawmakers.
Sen. Rand Paul was critical in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer shortly after Obama's speech and claimed he wanted to the data collection to stop altogether, which intelligence officials say is unrealistic and won't happen under the president's reforms.
"I think what I heard is that if you like your privacy, you can keep it," Paul zinged, a reference to Obama's now-infamous promise that under his signature health care law, "if you like your plan, you can keep it."
Others felt Obama's reforms are a step in the right direction.
“The devil will be in the details,” said Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), when asked if the president’s speech satisfied him. “These are very difficult and complex issues,” because technology changes every day. “But I hope millions of people become engaged” in the conversation.
“... In an effort to increase oversight and transparency of the FISA courts charged with protecting American citizens’ privacy, I sponsored legislation that would ensure that American citizens actually have an advocate in those court proceedings to ensure that decisions to gather intelligence aren’t simply rubber-stamped. It’s a positive step forward that the President today recommended establishing this type of advocate, but I’m also pleased that he made clear that doing so will be a collaborative process with Congress.”
Reaction to Obama's speech will continue by critics and supporters for days to come, but everyone agreed the subject should be open to public debate even though consensus on every policy change and reform is unlikely.