The government will continue to gather data on phone, texts and e-mails and other communications of millions of Americans, but intelligence officials won’t hold on to the data and will be required to get court permission before reviewing that data already collected, President Barack Obama said Friday.
“If a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence,” Obama said in defending the data gathering program. “Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort.”
In a speech delivered at the Justice Department, Obama attempted to shift the conversation to who is holding the data on Americans communications, while stating that the National Security Agency’s data collection program will continue. The move almost certainly won’t pacify privacy advocates who oppose the bulk collection of communications of both Americans and foreign leaders.
“Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties,” the president said, explaining there was not a simple solution.
“Indeed, during the course of our review, I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents, like Dr. King, who were spied on by their own government,” the president said, referring to civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “As a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.”
Metadata is defined as information on communications, such as the time, date and duration, but not the actual content.
The NSA program was revealed last summer by former government contractor turned fugitive leaker Edward Snowden. The administration has justified the bulk data collection under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to compel companies to turn over business records for counter-terrorism purposes.
Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to report back to him in 60 days alternative approaches to keep the NSA program in place without the government holding on to the data. Clapper and Holder will also review the FISA court information that could be declassified and determine when telecommunication companies can inform customers their information was gathered by the government.
Clapper and Holder playing such a paramount roll could be viewed as an odd aspect for an effort seeking to reestablish public trust. Clapper is believed to have intentionally misled Congress when he told the Senate Intelligence Committee – before the Snowden revelations – that there was no mass data collection of Americans. In 2012, Holder was actually found in contempt of Congress for refusing to provide documents to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigating the Operation Fast and Furious gun walking scandal.
Further, during the Friday speech, the president called for allowing a congressional-appointed panel to review decision made by the FISA court, which would have to give prior approval to any future query into records. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts is a secret federal judicial-panel charged with approving government requests for surveillance or data gathering on Americans.
The NSA data gathering has irked several foreign allies, particularly leaders of Germany, Brazil and Spain, which Obama also addressed, stating regular individuals nor leaders abroad will be spied on.
“I have made clear to the intelligence community that – unless there is a compelling national security purpose – we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies,” Obama said.
The president has appointed White House Counsel John Podesta to lead a further review of gathering communications information.
After the Snowden revelations last year, the president appointed a task force that made 46 recommendations in December on reforming the NSA system. The task force suggested continuing the program, but making it more transparent. Among those recommendations was allowing the communications companies such as Verizon and AT&T to hold the information. The communications companies objected.
The task force said such surveillance could be an effective counterterrorism measure, but could pose a risk to privacy and civil liberties.
Obama also took a shot at Snowden for the leaks.
“I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations,” Obama said. “I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out 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.”
Privacy advocates are litigating against the government’s right to collect the data. One suit is being pursued by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Meanwhile, Republican and Democrats on Capitol Hill are each split on whether the program should exist, and on the extent of how much it should be reformed.
Obama said the debate will make the country stronger.
“No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account. But let us remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity,” Obama said.