WASHINGTON — Tightening the reins on the nation’s sweeping surveillance operations, President Barack Obama on Friday ordered new limits on the way intelligence officials access phone records from hundreds of millions of Americans — and moved toward eventually stripping the massive data collection from the government’s hands.
But Obama’s highly anticipated intelligence recommendations left many key details unresolved, most notably who might take over as keeper of the vast trove of U.S. phone records. Final decisions on that and other major questions were left to the Justice Department and intelligence agencies that oppose changing surveillance operations, and to a Congress divided about the future of the programs.
If fully implemented, Obama’s proposals would mark the most significant changes to the surveillance laws passed in reaction to the Sept. 11, 2011, terror attacks. While Obama said he welcomed the recent spying debate, it’s unlikely to have happened without the national and international backlash following a wave of leaks from former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden.
For now, the phone records will continue to reside with the government. But the NSA will need to get approval from the secretive Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court each time it wants to access the data, a more cumbersome process than currently required. Exceptions will be made in the event of a national security emergency, officials said.
Responding to outrage overseas, Obama pledged Friday to curb spying on friendly allied leaders and extend some privacy protections to foreign citizens. The proposals appeared to ease some anger in Germany, which was particularly incensed by revelations the NSA monitored the communications of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Despite the firestorm at home and abroad, Obama robustly defended the intelligence community’s role in keeping the nation safe. But he said the U.S. had a “special obligation” to ensure its muscular spying apparatus was not trampling on civil liberties.
“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,” he said during a speech at the Justice Department.
Privacy advocates, who pushed for ending the phone record collections altogether, criticized the president’s restrictions as insufficient. The intelligence community appeared publicly content with his plans.
On Capitol Hill, the response was decidedly mixed. A rare cross-section of lawmakers from both parties, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called for greater reforms. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, blamed the president for failing in the past to properly explain the importance of certain intelligence gathering practices.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who lead their chambers’ intelligence committees, called on the president to send them specific legislation with his proposed changes.
Obama’s announcement capped a six-month White House review triggered by Snowden’s flood of disclosures about the scope of U.S. spying. But by ordering further review of key issues, Obama ensured his speech would hardly be the final word in the resurgent debate about balancing privacy and security.
The most glaring omission in Obama’s announcement was any recommendation on where Americans’ phone records should be kept if they are no longer housed by the government.
A presidential review board recommended moving the data to the phone providers or a third party, but both options present obstacles. The phone companies strongly oppose the expense and potential liability of keeping the data, and no credible third party option has emerged.
Administration officials also raised the possibility of replacing the bulk phone collection program with new surveillance methods that would negate the need to store the data long term.
Obama ordered the Justice Department and intelligence community to report back to him with options within 60 days.