Obama Outlines Steps to Address Concerns Around NSA Surveillance

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By Alexei Alexis  

President Obama Aug. 9 announced a series of steps that his administration will take to address privacy concerns related to controversial internet and phone surveillance activities that have been implemented by the National Security Agency.

Obama said the administration will work with Congress to pursue “appropriate reforms” to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which allows the government to compel U.S. businesses to turn over customer records after obtaining an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Other steps include working to improve the public's confidence in the FISC, which clears government spying initiatives through proceedings that are largely secretive.


“The American people need to have confidence” in the programs.  



President Obama

“It's not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said at a White House press conference. “The American people need to have confidence in them, as well.”

The president noted that he recently met with key members of Congress on the issue (149 TCM, 8/2/13).

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) issued separate statements welcoming the president's announcement.

“The President today made clear what we have been saying for several weeks, that we will continue to work through the August recess on proposals to improve transparency and strengthen privacy protections to further build the confidence of the American public in our nation's counterterrorism programs,” Rogers said.

Feinstein said she was pleased with the president's commitment to improving the public's confidence in the NSA's surveillance efforts.

“As I have said before, if changes are necessary, whenever feasible, we will make them,” she said.

NSA Activities Spark Controversy

Obama and intelligence committee leaders are working to salvage two controversial NSA surveillance programs. One effort involves the collection of vast amounts of “metadata” related to Americans' phone calls--such as numbers dialed--under Section 215, while the other program, known as PRISM, targets non-U.S. persons and allows the interception of web communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, according to the administration.

The programs have led to public outrage and growing momentum on Capitol Hill for legislative action to rein in the government's surveillance powers. A key concern has been the administration's position that Section 215 allows the bulk collection of U.S. phone customer records.

Obama said the phone records program is an important tool in the effort to disrupt terrorist plots and does not allow the government to listen to phone calls without a warrant. “But given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse,” the president said, adding that he was willing to pursue new constraints on the use of Section 215.

In addition, the president said his administration will:

• work with Congress to ensure that the government's position in FISC proceedings is challenged in “appropriate cases” by an adversary focused on privacy concerns;

• create a new intelligence community website that will serve as a “hub” for surveillance transparency; and

• form a high-level group of outside experts to conduct a surveillance review that will result in an interim report within 60 days and a final one by the end of the year.


After the press conference, the White House released a paper explaining the government's legal justification for the phone records program.

Meanwhile, the NSA programs have already triggered a flurry of surveillance-related bills in both chambers of Congress, including a measure (S. 1215) from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to curtail the government's ability to collect data under Section 215 and a proposal (S. 1460) from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to create a privacy rights advocate with the power to argue against U.S. government officials before the FISC.

The White House paper can be found at http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-9aeu73.