Obama Sets New Limits on NSA Snooping

First policy reforms since Edward Snowden's leaks

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, January 17, 2014.

President Barack Obama announced new limitations Friday on how federal agents can access millions of Americans’ phone records, his first reforms since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of massive surveillance programs last year.

In his highly anticipated speech and an accompanying policy directive, Obama laid out reforms to the National Security Agency’s program of mass phone data collection that were relatively modest but also went further than many intelligence hawks preferred. Seeking to strike a balance between the need to protect American lives and maintain public trust, Obama both defended the country’s intelligence agencies while acknowledging the potential for abuse.

“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 at the Justice Department.

Obama’s new directive does not require the NSA to stop collecting so-called metadata on millions of Americans’ phone records, which he reiterated do not include the content of phone calls, merely details like phone numbers and call durations.

“They’re not abusing authority in order to listen to private phone calls or read your emails,” he said.

But the directive does require a court order to actually access that data and prevents the government from holding the data itself (a third party will need to be created for storage). The directive also establishes an advocate to represent privacy concerns on the secretive court that approves wiretaps and other intelligence activities, and it institutes some restrictions on spying on foreign heads of state. The directive also allows telecommunications firms to reveal some information about government requests to access data.

“The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected,” Obama said, “even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe.”

The administration has been under fire ever since Snowden leaked details of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs last year, leaks that continue to spark new revelations and drive public debate even months later. With Snowden living under temporary asylum in Russia, Obama nodded to Snowden’s “avalanche of unauthorized disclosures” and criticized the precedent he set.

“If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe,” Obama said.

“The sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light,” he added.

In allowing the NSA to continue its actual bulk collection of the phone metadata, Obama defended the need for sophisticated surveillance in a digital world.

“We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications,” he said.

Obama’s speech comes after recommendations from a task force he formed following Snowden’s leaks. That task force had recommended phone records be held by telecommunications companies instead of by the government. Such firms have said they don’t want to be required to hold that data, and Obama as asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the NSA to present a proposal within 60 days for an alternative storage solution.

“Ultimately, what’s at stake in this debate goes far beyond a few months of headlines, or passing tensions in our foreign policy,” Obama said. “When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed.”


Rather than just listen to the usual talking-head pundits of MSM
commenting on what Obama's NSA speech meant, I had the opportunity to watch and listen to C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" Saturday morning interview with James Bamford --- the original NSA 'Whistle-Blower' --- on the vacuousness of what Obomber said and to applaud and describe the immense value of what Snowden did in exposing the NSA and the whole Empire behind the NSA.


[My question/scenario and Bamford's answers run from 25:25 to 30:30 of this video]

In fact, after much dialing, I actually had the chance to dialog and pose questions to James Bamford myself.

After complimenting James on his books and his own 'whistle-blowing' --- as significant as Snowden's and Ellsberg's, I questioned him and suggested that the NSA leaks might be only the tip of the iceberg of other secrets being hidden by the; corporate, financial, militarist, media/propaganda, extra-legal, and political 'sectors' of what might better be described not as the "country" but of a Disguised Global Empire that has captured our country (and others) as its nominal headquarters.

While my questioning to James seemed a bit more radical-left than the proceeding callers (some of whom had ranted that Snowden should be hung --- and which Bamford dismissed), he actually nodded approvingly of all the sectors of the Empire, and agreed that such a modern and global Empire was a far "different kind of an Empire than the British Empire of ships".

Bamford acknowledged that the 'media sector ' of such an Global
Empire was near useless, and he agreed also that the NSA was part of the 'militarist sector' and 'extra-legal sector'.

I had mentioned in my question/scenario that Nick Turse's book, "The
Changing Face of Empire", likewise acknowledged that America was more Empire than country today ---- which Bamford agreed with. And the renowned NSA 'whistle-blower' also acknowledged that the late Chalmers Johnson, Chomsky, Hedges, and other progressive public intellectuals were in agreement that an Empire held sway over America in terms of spying, drone wars, global bases, cyberwars, and other critical offenses.

Time did not permit any further discussion of how the Disguised
Global Empire actually disguises itself, nor of the extensive 'corporate
sector' relationships (like IBM's) that allowed the NSA to carry out a
virtual national-security or police-state, but the bottom line of an
exchange that I was lucky enough to have with Bamford certainly
reinforced my confidence that he endorsed the concept of calling the
oppressive force of the NSA and its corporate, financial, military,
media, and political partners an EMPIRE --- not a country.

Best luck and love to the fast expanding 'Occupy the Empire'
educational and non-violent revolutionary movement against this
deceitful and Disguised Global EMPIRE, which can't so easily be
identified as wearing Red Coats, Red Stars, nor funny looking Nazi
helmets ---- quite YET!

Liberty, democracy, justice, and equality
Violent ('Vichy' disguised)

Alan MacDonald
Sanford, Maine

We don't merely have a domestic tyranny and NSA SPYING problem, or a gun/fear problem, or an MIC problem, or an 'Austerity' problem, or an expanding wars problem, or a 'drone assassinations' problem, or a vast income & wealth inequality problem, or a Wall Street 'looting' problem, or a Global Warming and environmental death-spiral problem, or the world's largest political prisoner problem, or a crappy un-healthy insurance problem, or, or, or ... ad nauseam --- but that we REALLY havea hidden VEMPIRE cancerous tumor of GLOBAL EMPIRE which is the prime CAUSE of all these underlying, related, and mere 'symptom problems'.


You clowns below are so concerned about what Snowden did, here's a really traitorous revelation: the US is spying on every foreign country in every way it can.  Phone records, internet records, bugging, you name it.  Surprise, surprise.  And in spite of all the posturing, you don't think all foreign governments didn't already know this?  The only thing that Snowden revealed that came as a surprise is the our own gov't is monitoring all of us.  

If you're so g*ddamn concerned about damage China is doing to us, take a look at all the jobs that continue to be outsourced there by US CEOs.  Take a look at how China is legally building corporate partnerships in Africa and South America to get access to minerals whereas our corporate policies become locally unpopular because they are singularly exploitative and wind up only benefiting people at the top.  China doesn't need to go to war with us.  They're beating us legally, economically..meanwhile morons like you wind up focusing on inconsequential things like snowden.


@j45ashton They were smart enough not to take Snowden.  

And did you check out Fox today?  They've screamed about solar panels and us wasting money; now they're screaming about China's monopoly on solar panels.   We deserve what we get when we're a Fox News nation.  


Well, Mr President, according to you what would have been the "right" way for Snowden to have proceeded?  Youhaven't told us that.  

Here's what generally happens to whistle-blowers who stay within organizational confines: their disclosures have no effect whatsoever, they are threatened and/or demoted and/or fired with no further access or position to prove their charges to the public


Snowden revealed a problem to which you are now responding.  Fine.  But prosecuting Snowden under the Espionage Act of 1917 is as vindictive as the Nixon Administration prosecuting Daniel Elsberg under the same.  Nixon got caught & he was mad.  You got caught and so you are mad.  Elsberg did exactly what Snowden did.  He released highly classified documents to the press and we can all thank him for it.  Elsberg got off due to crazy constitutional violations committed by the Nixon administration.  You & Holder wouldn't be so clumsy. 

Here's a little quote from Nixon that probably expresses your level of anger and embarrassment: "The sonofbitching thief is made a national hero...The New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents...They're trying to get us with thieves.  What in the name of God have we come to?"


@j45ashton Snowden is in no way vindicated because Obama has tweaked N.S.A.   It's public relations to shut you up.   But if you want to think it vindicates a guy who told China, in detail, how we spy on them go ahead and swallow it.   

We're going to spy.   So far we haven't figured out how to have an 'independent' organization (that we'll have to pay) collect this data - which WILL BE collected.   

Obama did not "get caught" and now he's mad.   You sound like Snowden.  It's NOT about Obama.  


@j45ashtonWell, Mr President, according to you what would have been the "right" way for Snowden to have proceeded? 


Well for one not divulge things that have NOTHING to do with American privacy but hey if you think giving our sources and methods to China and Russia is a good thing then we have nothing left to discuss.


I start by saying that the changes the president revealed today will not please those who think our government is the boogie man in truth nothing ever will. I don’t remember the last time a president gave us this much information when it comes to this issue as a whole and what we can do when it comes to our capability by using facts not speculation or what if’s. He is right we must evolve with the changes in the world when it comes to those who threaten our freedoms. He also called out our neighbors on reacting so shocked when the leaks came out. Much respect for the president on defending those who wake up every day to protect us and making it clear why these programs are needed. Transparency does not mean getting rid of these programs it means having a debate and adding more oversight if needed. I’m cool with the president mentioning Snowden to say that his way was the wrong way plus stating the obvious that his revelations do more harm than good. The president understands the whole picture and he clearly takes this matter seriously so I will trust his judgement on this matter and the safeguards he is recommending to institute. I look forward to reading the declassified documents. These changes will not jeopardize our capability and for me that was the whole point of this debate because, we can’t allow fringe groups to control these types of debate. All I know the president keeps proving he knows what he’s doing!


"So let me begin by saying this to you and to the American people: I know that there are millions of Americans who are content with their health care coverage -- they like their plan and, most importantly, they value their relationship with their doctor. They trust you. And that means that no matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. ... If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan, period. ... No one will take it away, no matter what." *


How much credibility does this liar still have? NONE!


@RodInTexas I highly doubt you thought he had any credibility before that statement. We get it you hate him and liberals so move on. Let see some new GOP ideas...tax cuts and unspecific changes to the budget/tax code are NOT new ideas.