President Barack Obama on Friday defended the the “vital role” that intelligence-gathering plays in the nation’s security, as he nonetheless announced changes aimed at increasing transparency and protecting privacy and civil liberties.
Presidential guidance on U.S. surveillance unveiled as Obama outlined his reforms in a speech said the government will not collect intelligence “for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent, or for disadvantaging persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.”
At the Justice Department Obama illustrated the nexus of intelligence and security, recalling events in American history going back to Paul Revere’s famous ride.
Obama said that “a variety of factors have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties,” citing technological advances that allow supercomputers to collect huge amounts of digital data as a reason for needing to reform U.S. surveillance programs.
Obama would announce the end of the controversial NSA telephone metadata collection program “as it currently exists,” a senior administration official told CNN.
Obama will say that he is ordering a transition of the current intelligence-gathering program to one that addresses concerns of privacy and civil liberties, the official said.
It is part of the changes that Obama is expected to announce to sweeping U.S. surveillance efforts exposed by intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, whose blockbuster disclosures have raised questions about government overreach in fighting terror.
The scope of phone and e-mail snooping by the National Security Agency that came to light last year triggered outrage from civil libertarians and prompted key members of Congress from both parties to weigh changes in national security law.
Nothing in his administration’s initial review of U.S. intelligence operations and “nothing that I have learned since indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” Obama said.
According to the official, the president will recommend that the collection of Americans’ phone records remain at the NSA temporarily as he seeks input from Congress and the U.S. intelligence community on where to store the data permanently.
Effective immediately, the NSA will have to seek approval from the federal surveillance court before querying the database, a second senior administration official said.
While the bulk telephone data remains with the NSA for now, Obama is determined to see those records moved out of government hands, though it is uncertain where, the official said.
Obama is expected to act on recommendations from an independent panel that he called for at the height of the fallout from the leaks around the agency’s surveillance activities and a secret court that works with it.
The presidential Review Group on Intelligence concluded in December that data collection should remain but that the government must do a better job of protecting civil liberties in the context of national security.
Changes imposed by the President will permanently place his signature on the intelligence initiative and help define his legacy as a chief executive who promised a more open and transparent government when he entered the White House five years ago.
NSA domestic and international phone and e-mail surveillance is considered some of the most widespread intelligence gathering performed by the U.S. government.
The agency and its supporters believe data collection authority is crucial to discovering potential terrorists who haven’t yet come to the attention of national security officials.
But critics say it violates privacy rights of Americans whose data is collected even though there is no suspicion that they pose a security threat.
The White House was tight-lipped when asked about the President’s response to the recommendations and any proposed changes.
“I know there’s a lot of speculation about what decisions he has made and, in some cases, there have been assertions of fact about decisions he’s made that I know for a fact he had not yet made when those assertions of fact were made in the press,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, noting that he would not speculate on what was forthcoming.
The review panel said that when government officials consider national security risks, they should also consider risks to privacy, freedom, civil liberties, relationships and trade with other nations.
The panel also recommended new limits on spying on foreigners and foreign leaders after controversies around the disclosures of U.S. snooping on overseas leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Federal courts are divided on NSA telephone data collection. One judge in Washington ruled preliminarily in December that it was probably unconstitutional on privacy grounds. A second judge ruling in another case in New York subsequently found it lawful.
The top-secret the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the legal aspects of surveillance, earlier this month reauthorized the program for another three months.
The program is covered under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and has been authorized 36 times over the past seven years.
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