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.”