President Barack Obama today announced reforms to the nation's surveillance programs in an effort to give federal judges greater oversight and to give the public more information and participation in the process.
Many of the changes focus on the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the panel of judges in Washington that reviews government applications to secretly review and monitor telephone and Internet communications.
In a 50-minute speech at the U.S. Department of Justice, Obama made his case for the necessity of the surveillance programs, which came under intense scrutiny after leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the scope of the agency's snooping.
"Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties," Obama said. "The challenge is getting the details right, and that’s not simple."
The largest changes would come to the most controversial program—the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. Obama raised concerns with the potential for abuse when the government is holding that database—millions of records that document phone numbers dialed and duration of the call.
Obama gave Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and the NSA two months to find a source to store the information other than the government—either the service providers themselves or a third party.
"Both of these options pose difficult problems," Obama said. "Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns."
"On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single, consolidated data-base would be carrying out what is essentially a government function with more expense, more legal ambiguity, and a doubtful impact on public confidence that their privacy is being protected," Obama said.
In the meantime, starting today, NSA analysts must seek approval from surveillance court judges before making any query of the phone call database, Obama said. The agency, he said, can access the database "in a true emergency."
Obama also tapped Holder to make several changes that he said will make the court's actions more transparent. The president, for instance, ordered Holder to review all future FISA court decisions for declassification. He directed Holder to reform the use of national security letters—called NSLs—so they don't remain secret indefinitely.
The secrecy of NSLs would terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy, the president said.
Additionally, telephone service providers who receive requests for information from the government will be able to make public more information than before. Companies that include Google, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo! last year filed petitions in the surveillance court seeking the ability to provide more information about government demands for consumer data.
Obama also called on Congress to establish a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, such as novel issues of law and large questions of privacy.
The president also announced that John Podesta, who recently returned to the White House, will lead a review team that will look more broadly at the challenges big data pose.
"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," Obama said. "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."