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President Obama praises NSA, offers little in mass surveillance reform

Ellen Messmer | Jan. 20, 2014
President skirts most reform recommendations made by his appointed panel in December.

President Barack Obama today said his administration is going to change some aspects of how the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies conduct surveillance and hold data collected on U.S and foreign individuals. But his goals fell far short of what was recommended in the 46 proposals for reform of the NSA spelled out last month by the five-member working group he appointed.

In response to the revelations made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about NSA's bulk data collection practices carried out across the Internet around the world, President Obama defended the NSA and its secretive operations as necessary for national security. He praised the "knowledge and professionalism" of those working for the NSA but acknowledged the power of the data-gathering technologies of the current era did hold cause for concern.

"The power of new technologies," said the President, mean "fewer and fewer technical restraints on what we can do." But he said it's also a matter of what "we should do" in terms of data collection around the world. He noted the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. had led to the NSA to greatly stepping up efforts to detect terrorists through massive data collection.  

One of the most hotly-debated topics triggered by Snowden leaking of NSA documents to the media is how the NSA collects and holds a trove of metadata about phone calls, including those of U.S. citizens, in order to mine it for intelligence purposes. The President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which included law experts and government veterans Richard Clarke, Michael Morrell, Geoffrey Stone, Cass Sunstein and Peter Swire, advocated in their 400-page report in December that bulk collection of phone metadata continue but that the NSA not be the one holding it. They also said it there should be tougher legal requirements in place to get to this data.

President Obama today said as part of the reform of practices he wants to hear recommendations on a "new approach" for holding all this phone metadata if the NSA itself is not holding it. He said he wanted to hear these recommendations before March 28 when the bulk-data collection program is slotted to be re-authorized. President Obama indicated he would not advocate stopping the collection of phone meta-data, so one difficulty is that phone companies themselves are not eager to hold meta-data for NSA review, so there's no clear path to tackling this issue. However, he said from now on, the NSA would only be allowed to mine phone call data about individuals 2 steps from a call from someone in a terrorist organization, not 3.

Another issue brought out by the Snowden revelations is that the NSA was long spying on foreign leaders, even those close to the U.S., such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Indeed, the revelations that the U.S. routinely collects massive amounts of telecom calls and Internet-related data overseas has caused a storm of protest from allies around the world.


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