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January 17, 2014

NSA Bulk Collection of Phone Data to End: Obama

President Barack Obama, with Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., holds a meeting with intelligence community leaders in the Situation Room of the White House, Jan. 8, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The National Security Agency will no longer engage in the mass collection of American phone data, U.S. President Barack Obama announced in his much-anticipated speech today on NSA reforms.

While the president said the need for such intelligence will always exist, the bulk metadata program, as it currently exists, will be no more. Instead, “a mechanism that preserves the capabilities” the U.S. needs without the government holding this bulk metadata will be established.

Obama has requested Congress, the Justice Department and the intelligence community help determine just who should hold such records — a process the president described as a difficult one.

“The review group recommended that our current approach be replaced by one in which the providers or a third party retain the bulk records, with government accessing information as needed,” Obama said.

“Both of these options pose difficult problems.  Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns.  On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single, consolidated database would be carrying out what is essentially a government function but with more expense, more legal ambiguity, potentially less accountability ­— all of which would have a doubtful impact on increasing public confidence that their privacy is being protected.”

Due to the challenges such a change will cause, Obama has ordered the NSA to transition away from its current practices in two steps.

“Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of the current three,” Obama said, adding that, during the transition, the database can only be used with judicial approval or in extreme emergency.

The intelligence community and the Attorney General have been tasked with finding a new way to ensure the U.S. still has the intelligence it needs without the government housing the metadata.  They have been given a March 28 deadline — the date when the program comes up for reauthorization.

“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,” Obama said. “I recognize that there are additional issues that require further debate.”

Obama has also directed the NSA and its peers to halt all spying on international leaders that are considered allies

“The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to know what they think about an issue, I’ll pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance,” he said. “In other words, just as we balance security and privacy at home, our global leadership demands that we balance our security requirements against our need to maintain the trust and cooperation among people and leaders around the world.”

The president has also ordered some privacy protections be put in place for foreign citizens whose communications are collected by the U.S.

Such data, Obama said, can only be used to meet security requirements such as counterintelligence, counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber-security, force protection for American soldiers and its allies, and combating transnational crime.

“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,” Obama said.

Senior officials will be appointed to ensure the ordered reforms actually happen, Obama added.

The president also offered technology company’s (such as Google and Yahoo) a little bit of what they wanted — more transparency when it comes to national security letters, documents that force companies to provide information on their customers.

“These are cases in which it’s important that the subject of the investigation, such as a possible terrorist or spy, isn’t tipped off,” he said. “But we can and should be more transparent in how government uses this authority.”

The secrecy of such national security letters will now terminate within a fixed time unless the government can prove a need for further secrecy.  Internet and technology companies will also be permitted to release more information to the public.

The president did reject some of the suggestions of the panel he appointed to review the actions of the NSA, however.

Obama did not accept the sweeping changes the five-member Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies recommended for the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

He said he would work with Congress to shape an approach that meets the country’s security needs while respecting the civil liberties of it citizens.


Jennifer Cowan is the Managing Editor for SiteProNews.

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