SurveillanceObama announces reforms of U.S. intelligence data collection practices

Published 18 January 2014

President Barack Obama on Friday called for a “new approach” by the U.S. intelligence community to the collection of Americans’ phone metadata. The major changes in current practices involve storage of and access to bulk metadata; the presence of a public advocate during FISA court deliberations; new privacy protections for non-Americans; and new restrictions on spying on leaders of allied countries. Obama offered a robust defense of the U.S. intelligence services, saying that there was no evidence they had abused their power, and that many of their methods were necessary to protect Americans. “We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective,” he said. The president pointedly noted that some countries that “have loudly criticized the NSA privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world’s only superpower . . . and that they themselves have relied on the information we obtain to protect their own people.”

President Barack Obama on Friday called for a “new approach” by the U.S. intelligence community to the collection of Americans’ phone metadata, saying he was “ordering a transition that will end the . . . 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 warned, though, that “This will not be simple.”

The effort would be simple, but it is necessary. “America’s capabilities are unique,” Obama said. “And the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”

“When you cut through the noise,” he said, “what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed.”

Origins of bulk data collection
The president began his speech saying that the phone-records collection program grew out of a need to fill a “gap” identified after the 9/11 attacks. One hijacker made a phone call from San Diego to a known al-Qaeda safe house in Yemen, but the NSA, which saw that call, could not tell that it was coming from someone already in the United States, Obama said.

New restrictions on bulk collection
He emphasized that there has been “no indication that this database has been intentionally abused.”

Still, he said, “critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive, bulk collection programs.” Moreover, he said, the program “has never been subject to vigorous public debate.”

Talking about the collection of bulk metadata, Obama said that there is still a need to decide which entity will hold the data, observing that two options — allowing the phone companies or a third party to retain the bulk records — both “pose difficult problems,” including new privacy concerns and legal ambiguity.

The bulk collection of phone metadata is due for reauthorization by the FISA court on 28 March, and Obama has instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to formulate a transition plan from the current practice to a new policy. Congress will be consulted on the new policy.