On Friday, President Obama gave a speech announcing a number of NSA reforms including an end to tapping the phones of allied nations and the holding of metadata from millions of Americans.
In his speech, the President took steps to reassure both Americans and foreigners the U.S. government will take into account privacy concerns highlighted by former spy contractor Snowden.
“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 in his highly anticipated speech at the Justice Department.
“This debate will make us stronger,” he declared. “In this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead.”
Obama said the U.S. had a “special obligation” to re-examine its intelligence capabilities because of the potential for trampling on civil liberties. He underlined that he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to phone records, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.
A presidential advisory panel had recommended that the data be controlled by a third party such as the telephone companies, but Obama did not propose who should store the phone information in the future, says Reuters.
Acknowledging the public clamor those leaks have generated, the president nonetheless defended many of the agency’s most controversial programs as necessary in the fight against terrorism.
“The task before us now is greater than simply repairing the damage done to our operations; or preventing more disclosures from taking place in the future. Instead, we have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals – and our Constitution – require,” Obama said.
“We need to do so not only because it is right, but because the challenges posed by threats like terrorism, and proliferation, and cyber attacks are not going away anytime soon. They are going to continue to be a major problem, and for our intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, we must maintain the trust of the American people, and people around the world.”
Mr. Obama made only a brief, critical reference to Mr. Snowden, saying his actions had jeopardized the nation’s defense and framed a debate that has “often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come”.
The surveillance revelations have caused particular anger abroad, especially over disclosures that the U.S. was monitoring the communications of friendly foreign leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama said new guidelines will cut back on foreign leader monitoring, expect when there is a compelling national security interest.
“The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance,” Obama said.
The president’s changes are expected to be met with pushback from some in the intelligence community, who have been pressing him to keep the surveillance programs largely intact.