Under pressure by last year’s classified leaks of U.S. surveillance, President Barack Obama on Friday unveiled new guidance for intelligence-gathering and reforms intended to balance what he called the nation’s vital security needs with concerns over privacy and civil liberties.
In a speech at the Justice Department, Obama sought to defend the need for the government to gather intelligence while responding to protests raised at home and abroad over programs revealed in the leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama outlined a series of steps — some immediate and some requiring time to work out, possibly with Congress — that would change some aspects of NSA collection of phone records and other information but generally leave intact the core and function of existing programs.
“Let us chart a way forward that secures the life of our nation, while preserving the liberties that make our nation worth fighting for,” the President said in ending the 45-minute speech that touched on the history of U.S. intelligence-gathering, its role in the world and changes he is making.
Obama also addressed concerns abroad that the United States spies on ordinary people as well as allied leaders. Snowden’s disclosures showed U.S. surveillance of personal communications of leaders in Germany, Brazil and other allies.
“The United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security” Obama said, adding 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.”
Before Obama spoke, a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of not being identified said the President’s assurances of no further spying on foreign leaders extended only to “dozens” of heads of state and government of U.S. friends and allies.
Initial reaction indicated those favoring robust intelligence gathering agreed with the President, while civil libertarians concerned about privacy wanted stronger controls.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Obama “took a measured and thoughtful approach.”
On the other side, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said the speech deserved “an ‘A’ for effort and probably a ‘C’ for content,” while WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told CNN that it was “embarrassing” for a head of state to speak so long and “say almost nothing.”
Snowden would respond to Obama’s comments, possibly early next week, Assange said.
The reforms Obama announced will change the controversial NSA telephone bulk collection program disclosed by Snowden by requiring intelligence analysts to get court approval to go into the metadata routinely stored by the agency.
In addition, Obama said he ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to work with intelligence officials on finding another place to store the metadata records that include phone numbers and the length of calls, but not content.
Obama also called on Congress to authorize establishment of a new panel of outside advocates to participate in “significant cases” before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that handles intelligence collection issues.
Critics contend collection of such vast amounts of information violates personal privacy, but Obama argued that national security depended on access to such data as long as it was under proper control and regulation.
“No evidence of abuse has been found involving surveillance programs, but changes are needed in response to legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised, Obama said.
The new guidance he issued declared the United States 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.”
Offering a historical review of U.S. intelligence gathering, Obama recalled events in American history going back to Paul Revere’s famous ride.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks raised the profile and priority of U.S. intelligence efforts, the President said, and now technological advances that allow supercomputers to gather huge amounts of digital data have complicated efforts “to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties.”
Obama remained critical of Snowden, who is now living under asylum in Russia following his series of leaks that began last June and transformed the debate on national security surveillance in the post 9/11 era.
“Our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” Obama said. “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.”
While the bulk telephone data remains with the NSA for now, Obama wants those records moved out of government hands, though it is uncertain where, a senior administration official said in briefing reporters on condition of not being identified.
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, recently reauthorized the program for another three months.
In making the changes after a review he ordered in the aftermath of the Snowden disclosures, Obama put his signature on the U.S. intelligence operation and helped define his legacy as a chief executive who promised a more open and transparent government when he entered the White House in 2009.