WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s orders to change some U.S. surveillance practices put the burden on Congress to deal with a national security controversy that alarmed Americans and outraged foreign allies.
Yet, he avoided major action on the practice of sweeping up billions of phone, email and text messages from across the globe.
In a speech at the Justice Department on Friday, Obama said he was placing new limits on the way intelligence officials access phone records from hundreds of millions of Americans — and was moving toward eventually stripping the massive data collection from the government’s hands.
His promises to end government storage of its collection of data on Americans’ telephone calls — and require judicial review to examine the data — were met with skepticism from privacy advocates and some lawmakers.
But Obama made it nearly impossible for reluctant leaders in Congress to avoid making some changes in the U.S. phone surveillance they have supported for years.
Obama admitted he has been torn between how to protect privacy rights and how to protect the U.S. from terror attacks — what officials called the main purpose of the spy programs.
“The challenge is getting the details right, and that is not simple,” he said.
His speech was anticipated since former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden made off with an estimated 1.7 million documents related to surveillance and other NSA operations and gave them to several journalists around the world. The revelations in the documents touched off a public debate about whether Americans wanted to give up some privacy in exchange for intelligence-gathering on terror suspects.
The president said his proposals “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 acknowledged more needs to be done, but he largely left it to Congress to work out the details.
The NSA said it does not listen in on the phone calls or read the Internet messages without specific court orders on a case-by-case basis. But intelligence officials do collect specific information about the calls and messages, such as how long they lasted, to try to track communications of suspected terrorists.
Plans to end the sweep of phone records have been building momentum in Congress among liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Congressional leadership and the chairmen of the intelligence committees — who for years signed off on the programs — opposed dramatic changes.
Obama’s order signals that the phone program must be overhauled, and lawmakers called his speech a welcomed first step.
“It is now time for Congress to take the next step by enacting legislation to appropriately limit these programs,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees, which proposed far less sweeping legislation, threw the responsibility back to Obama.
“We encourage the White House to send legislation with the president’s proposed changes to Congress so they can be fully debated,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in a coolly worded statement.
Privacy advocates called Obama’s proposal a shell game — by assigning the collection to a new, as-of-yet undecided entity instead of ending it outright. They had even sharper criticism for the speech’s scant attention to the NSA program that intercepts billions of overseas Internet messages and phone conversations from foreigners each day.
The program, authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the U.S. government to read or listen to the messages and phone calls as long as they do not target American citizens who live overseas.
Obama said he would seek new restrictions on the government’s ability to collect or use the overseas messages that accidentally included messages or phone calls from Americans.