18 January 2014, 07:47

'US is held to different standard' - Obama trims NSA powers, keeps phone data sweeping

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama cut the powers of the secretive National Security Agency (NSA) Friday by announcing 'concrete and substantial reforms' but allowed bulk phone data sweeps to go on as an anti-terror tool. Obama began his long-awaited speech at the US Justice Department with the tradition of US spying: "At the dawn of our republic a small surveillance committee was established in Boston. In World War II they gave us insights into war planes of our enemies. After the war the need for intelligence gathering only increased. And President Truman created the NSA."

President said that spying has always been guided by checks and balances, in contrast with systems in which there were no checks such as in East Germany. "US intelligence systems were anchored in our fundamental principles. The US proved not to be immune to surveillance abuse, especially in the 1960s."

Obama underlined that after the Cold War threats from terrorist groups have raised new need for surveillance: "Back then our intelligence services were not adapted to the new realities. It is hard to overstate the transformation America's intelligence community had to overcome after 9/11… So we demanded that our intelligence community improve its capabilities, and that law enforcement change practices to focus more on preventing attacks before they happen than prosecuting terrorists after an attack." 

America's capabilities in intelligence are unique, said Obama. "There is an inevitable bias to collect more, not less, information about the world. The danger of gov't over-reach is acute in the world of modern technological advancement." 

"Over the past decade we've made enormous progress in our surveillance techniques. Relationships with foreign intelligence have strengthened. We saw, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our government engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values. As a Senator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate," Obama said. 

"The men and women of intelligence community consistently fall prey to mistakes but they correct them," Obama said. 

At the same time US President noted that nothing in the initial review indicated that US intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens. 

"It is clear to me that changes in our tech capabilities were raising numerous privacy issues. A variety of factors have continued to complicate America's efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties," Obama siad. 

President underlined that he was not "complacent" about the scope of NSA programs before the Snowden revelations: "To say that our intelligence community follows the law, and is staffed by patriots, is not to suggest that I, or others in my Administration, felt complacent about the potential impact of these programs." 

Obama spoke on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: "Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations. I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy."

US must maintain the trust of the American people and people around the world, underlined Obama. He said that he wanted the American people to know that the work has begun on reforming NSA and that he will prevent the agency from looking at phone records without a legal reason. 

"But after all there's a reason why Blackberries and iPhones are not allowed in the White House situation room. We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies," added Obama. "Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached. Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends upon the law to constrain those in power," Obama said. 

Then he announced "concrete and substantial reforms" of US government surveillance practices at home and abroad. 

One reform appeared to take effect immediately. Analysts searching the database of domestic US phone data will now be restricted to investigating two "hops" from a suspect number, instead of three. 

A second reform, to newly require a judicial order for analysts to search the domestic phone database, appeared to be in process. "Obama said he had directed the attorney general "to work with the [Fisa court] so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency." 

US intelligence agencies will continue to gather intelligence on the intentions of governments around the world, underlined President.

"The bottom line is that people around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account. This applies to foreign leaders as well," said Obama.

"I have made clear to the intelligence community that – unless there is a compelling national security purpose – we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies," he said.

Obama added that US is held to a "different standard". "We are at the forefront of modern surveillance technology. The world expects us to protect our fundamental values and freedoms. Because of the strength of our democracy we should not shy away from high expectations. We can meet high expectations," he said. 

Obama announces 'concrete and substantial reforms' to NSA program

President Barack Obama is calling for major changes to the way the US intelligence community collects and stores information about people in the US and abroad, in the wake of disclosures that have sparked fury over sweeping government surveillance and stoked concerns about privacy.

Some of the changes will take effect immediately. Others will require further study and may take action by Congress to be implemented.

A look at some of the changes the president is proposing:

Phone records storage

Effective immediately, the National Security Agency will be required to get a secretive court's permission before accessing phone records that are collected from hundreds of millions of Americans.

Those records, which include numbers dialed and call lengths but not the content of calls, are currently stored by the government. But Obama is calling for that to change. He is directing the attorney general and the intelligence community to come up with a new plan for another party to store the data. Some of the proposals that have been floated previously include having phone companies or a new, third party store the data.

Also, the government will no longer be able to access phone records beyond two "hops" from the person they are targeting. That means the government can't access records for someone who called someone who called someone who called the suspect.

National security letters

No longer will national security letters be kept secret indefinitely. Federal law enforcement officers issue these letters to banks, phone companies and others, demanding customer information, and the recipients are currently barred from disclosing that they've received the requests. Under Obama's proposal, the government must establish the need for those letters to remain secret. The White House says providers receiving the letters will be able to make more information about them available publicly than ever before.

One aspect that's not changing is the government's ability to issue the letters without seeking a court's approval.

Spying on leaders overseas

Revelations that the US monitored the communications of friendly heads of state have sparked outrage overseas. Going forward, the US won't monitor the communications of "our close friends and allies overseas" unless there's a compelling national security purpose. But the White House isn't publicizing a list of which countries fall under that category, so there's little clarity about how that proposal will be implemented.

Spying on foreigners

Obama is issuing a presidential directive that outlines what the government uses intelligence for, and what purposes are prohibited. The directive says the government uses data for counterintelligence, counterterrorism and cybersecurity, to protect US forces and allies, and to combat weapons proliferation and transnational crime. The directive says intelligence can't be used to suppress criticism, to provide a competitive advantage to US companies, or to discriminate against people based on factors like race, gender or sexual orientation.

Obama is also proposing to extend to foreigners some protections against spying that US citizens enjoy. He's directing the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to develop safeguards dealing with how long the US can hold information on non-citizens overseas, and restrictions on how the data is used.

Privacy advocate

Obama called for a panel of outside advocates that can represent privacy and civil liberty concerns before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Those advocates would be present in for cases where the court is considering issues that are novel or significant - for instance, cases that raise a new issue the court hasn't dealt with previously.

This is one proposal that Obama cannot implement on his own. Because it involves another branch of government, Congress will have to act to change the way the court operates.

Personnel changes

Obama is directing the State Department to appoint a senior officer to coordinate diplomatic issues regarding technology and data-collection. At the White House, a senior official will be designated to carry out privacy safeguards. Obama also wants to centralize the process used to screen requests for US intelligence that come in from foreign governments. And Obama is asking a senior White House adviser, John Podesta, to lead a broad review of privacy "big data" that will involve input from industry and privacy experts.

Read more: 

Greenwald regards Obama's speech on NSA surveillance as publicity stunt

US: protests rage as Obama prepares to speak on NSA reform

Voice of Russia, AP

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