President Obama on Friday announced long-awaited reforms to the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance techniques, saying intelligence officials would need secret-court approval before accessing phone metadata and that the government should transition away from storing the private information.
“I believe we need a new approach,” Obama said from the Justice Department, striking a middle ground between the recommendations of civil liberties groups and the intelligence community. “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.”
The president’s remarks represented his most extensive attempt to quell the uproar over the government’s ability to spy on everyday Americans.
The speech, however, is just the beginning of a debate over the NSA that will now shift to Capitol Hill.
The most immediate and consequential reform is that the NSA will need approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before searching the trove of phone data. Under the current system, the executive branch could access the information without any form of judicial approval.
Obama also said the government should no longer be in the business of storing the metadata but that it would continue to do so until the administration and Congress develops a concrete blueprint.
The president asked Attorney General Eric Holder to report back to him by March 28 with a plan to have a non-government entity store the metadata. However, Congress will have the ultimate say on where the trove of data is housed.
An outside panel appointed by Obama had recommended that either telephone companies or a third party immediately store the data. However, the president balked at that proposal, noting resistance from the telecommunications industry.
Obama has been under immense pressure from progressives and civil libertarians to rein in the NSA's clandestine spying practices, which came to light after leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden.
The president briefly acknowledged Snowden, criticizing his actions.
"Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations,” he said.
“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,” Obama added.
Along with the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups and the botched rollout of Obamacare, the NSA controversy stoked public distrust in the Obama administration and government as a whole.
In his remarks, Obama said the intelligence community was appropriately overhauled in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It is hard to overstate the transformation America’s intelligence community had to go through after 9/11,” he said. “Our agencies suddenly needed to do far more than the traditional mission of monitoring hostile powers and gathering information for policymakers.”
Obama also had a foreign audience in mind when making his remarks. The president announced new limits on monitoring foreign heads of state from ally nations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders demanded changes after learning U.S. officials listened in on their personal conversations.
Still, despite the changes, White House officials largely defended the need for the surveillance practices in question.
“We have not determined that there has been abuse of these programs,” said one senior administration official, explaining that Obama felt the programs presented a “risk of potential abuse.”
The senior administration official added that Obama called for congressional involvement because reforms “cannot be implemented at the flip of a switch."
Obama also called on Congress to create a panel of privacy advocates that would address the FISA court.
Critics of the NSA, however, say Obama is leaving too much up to Congress. They say Obama’s speech showcased his evolution from an unabashed reformer on privacy rights to the hardened, de-facto leader of the intelligence community.
Obama acknowledged the complicated and contentious nature of the debate over the NSA.
“Ultimately, what’s at stake in this debate goes far beyond a few months of headlines, or passing tensions in our foreign policy,” said the president. “When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed.”