Obama Backs Limits On NSA Phone Collections05:32
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President Obama talks about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Obama talks about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
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President Barack Obama is ordering changes to the government's massive collection of phone records that he says will end the program "as it currently exists."

Obama says intelligence officials have not intentionally abused the program to invade privacy. But he also says he believes critics of the program have been right to argue that without proper safeguards, the collection could be used to obtain more information about American's private lives and open the door to more intrusive programs.

Obama announced the changes in a speech at the Justice Department.

Some of the changes will take effect immediately. Others will require further study and may take action by Congress to be implemented.

NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins Here & Now to discuss the president's remarks (audio at the top of the page). To hear our interviews with NPR national security editor Bruce Auster, NSA review panel member Peter Swire and constitutional law expert Noah Feldman, listen to the audio below.

A look at some of the changes the president is proposing:

Phone records storage

Effective immediately, the National Security Agency will be required to get a secretive court's permission before accessing phone records that are collected from hundreds of millions of Americans, except in emergencies.

Those records, which include numbers dialed and call lengths but not the content of calls, are currently stored by the government. But Obama is calling for that to change. He is directing the attorney general and the intelligence community to come up with a new plan for another party to store the data. Some of the proposals that have been floated previously include having phone companies or a new, third party store the data.

Also, the government will no longer be able to access phone records beyond two "hops" from the person they are targeting. That means the government can't access records for someone who called someone who called someone who called the suspect.

National security letters

No longer will national security letters be kept secret indefinitely. Federal law enforcement officers issue these letters to banks, phone companies and others, demanding customer information, and the recipients are currently barred from disclosing that they've received the requests. Under Obama's proposal, if the government can't establish the need to keep the letters secret, the secrecy will be lifted after a set time period. The White House says providers receiving the letters will be able to make more information about them available publicly than ever before.

One aspect that's not changing is the government's ability to issue the letters without seeking a court's approval.

Spying on leaders overseas

Revelations that the U.S. monitored the communications of friendly heads of state have sparked outrage overseas. Going forward, the U.S. won't monitor the communications of "our close friends and allies overseas" unless there's a compelling national security purpose. But the White House isn't publicizing a list of which countries fall under that category, so there's little clarity about how that proposal will be implemented.

Spying on foreigners

Obama is issuing a presidential directive that outlines what the government uses intelligence for, and what purposes are prohibited. The directive says the government uses data for counterintelligence, counterterrorism and cybersecurity, to protect U.S. forces and allies, and to combat weapons proliferation and transnational crime. The directive says intelligence can't be used to suppress criticism, to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies, or to discriminate against people based on factors like race, gender or sexual orientation.

Obama is also proposing to extend to foreigners some protections against spying that U.S. citizens enjoy. He's directing the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to develop safeguards dealing with how long the U.S. can hold information on non-citizens overseas, and restrictions on how the data is used.

Privacy advocate

Obama called for a panel of outside advocates that can represent privacy and civil liberty concerns before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Those advocates would be present in for cases where the court is considering issues that are novel or significant - for instance, cases that raise a new issue the court hasn't dealt with previously.

This is one proposal that Obama cannot implement on his own. Because it involves another branch of government, Congress will have to act to change the way the court operates.

Personnel changes

Obama is directing the State Department to appoint a senior officer to coordinate diplomatic issues regarding technology and data-collection. At the White House, a senior official will be designated to carry out privacy safeguards. Obama also wants to centralize the process used to screen requests from foreign governments for information held in the U.S. Obama is directing the director of national intelligence to review the spy court's decisions each year to see whether they can be declassified. And Obama is asking a senior White House adviser, John Podesta, to lead a broad review of privacy "big data" that will involve input from industry and privacy experts.

Guest

  • Scott Horsley, White House correspondent for NPR.
  • Bruce Auster, national security editor for NPR.
  • Peter Swire, member of the president's NSA review panel and professor of law and ethics at Georgia Tech.
  • Noah Feldman, professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in constitutional studies.

This segment aired on January 17, 2014.

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