Obama outlines proposals for reining in NSA surveillance

Critics of the National Security Agency program welcome the president's proposed limits on the government's intelligence surveillance efforts.

By Christi Parsons, Ken Dilanian and David Lauter

7:12 PM PDT, August 9, 2013


WASHINGTON — President Obama proposed significant new limits on the power of intelligence agencies to secretly collect vast amounts of information on Americans, responding to weeks of controversy with steps he said were designed to "ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values."

The proposals include measures to ensure that the government no longer will be the only side represented before the secret court that approves intelligence surveillance. They mark the first results of an intense debate within the administration about how to address the public unease over domestic spying that began with disclosures from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Further measures remain under debate as intelligence officials try to head off more drastic changes in Congress. The additional steps the administration is considering include amending the law to limit how much information on Americans the NSA can acquire and how long it can keep the data.

Even the steps announced so far amount to a shift after 12 years in which Congress and the White House, responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, have mostly expanded the authority and budgets of intelligence agencies.

Key members of Congress on both sides of the surveillance debate offered qualified support, heightening the chance that legislation reining in some of the NSA's authority could pass this fall.

The proposals also represent a victory for Snowden, the 30-year-old fugitive who released details about the NSA's classified programs, saying he wanted to start a debate over the appropriateness of U.S. efforts to gather data from the world's telephone and Internet systems.

Friday, in a near hourlong news conference a day before he heads to Martha's Vineyard for a nine-day family vacation, Obama engaged in that debate. He criticized Snowden, who has obtained temporary asylum in Russia, and called on him to return to face felony charges for leaking classified information. But the president also conceded the impact Snowden has had on the national debate.

"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said. "If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case."

Obama said he already had moved toward reviewing intelligence collection programs before Snowden's disclosures. But, he added, "there's no doubt that Mr. Snowden's leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response" in Congress and among the American public.

Obama also criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggesting that in granting refuge to Snowden and opposing the U.S. on other issues, he had engaged in a reflexive anti-Americanism that "played into the old Cold War stereotypes."

Obama said he has a good working relationship with Putin, despite his decision to cancel a summit meeting with the Russian leader that had been scheduled in Moscow for next month after a G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg. Their

personal rapport has little to do with whether U.S.-Russian relations improve, he said.

"Right now, this is just a matter of where Mr. Putin and the Russian people want to go," Obama said. "If they are looking forward into the 21st century," he said, "then I think we can work together."

On the other hand, "if issues are framed as, 'if the U.S. is for it, then Russia should be against it,' or we're going to be finding ways where we can poke each other at every opportunity, then probably we don't get as much stuff done," he added.

Obama acknowledged that intelligence officials' desire to classify all aspects of their programs had hurt public trust.

He said he had told officials that "rather than have a trunk come out here and a leg come out there and a tail come out there, let's just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they're looking at."

And he defended U.S. actions against critics in Europe and elsewhere who, he said, have minimized U.S. efforts to avoid intelligence abuses.

"We shouldn't forget the difference between the ability of our government to collect information online, under strict guidelines and for narrow purposes, and the willingness of some other governments to throw their own citizens in prison for what they say online," he said.

But while he defended the existing efforts, he also said he was considering several proposals to restrict them, particularly the most controversial program, which allows NSA to collect virtually all Americans' telephone calling records.

The NSA currently maintains a database of "metadata" on nearly every telephone call made within the United States. The data include which numbers called which other numbers, the date and time of each call and its duration. The database does not identify the callers, or include the contents of any call, officials repeatedly have said.

Obama did not specify how he would change the program, but a senior intelligence official said one possibility would require the telephone companies, rather than the government, to maintain the database. That could reduce public fear of misuse by government officials. Officials also have considered reducing the five-year period for storing the data to perhaps three years or less.

Another possibility under discussion would limit the ability of NSA analysts to pursue linkages from one number to another.

Currently, NSA analyzes the numbers called by a suspected terrorist, and then can look into the database to find records for any phones that were connected to those numbers and then on to a third "hop" of calling relationships that could include millions of people. The process might be restricted to limit the number of "hops" analysts can make.

Obama called more explicitly for changes in the procedures of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret to review requests by intelligence agencies, including the request to collect telephone metadata. Only government lawyers appear before the court, which was created in 1978. Obama said he wanted to create a more adversarial system to guarantee that judges heard more than one side.

"It's not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs," Obama said. "The American people have to have confidence in them, as well."

Obama also ordered the release of the Department of Justice's legal rationale for collecting data under the Patriot Act, as well as some basic disclosure by the secretive NSA of its mission and practices.

In those disclosures, NSA officials sought to emphasize the restrictions under which they work. Although the agency gathers vast amounts of data, its collections amount to only four-millionths of 1% of the data currently in the global communications system, the agency asserts.

"If a standard basketball court represented the global communications environment, NSA's total collection would be represented by an area smaller than a dime on that basketball court," the agency's statement said.

The president's announcements came after meetings between intelligence agencies and outside groups, including telephone companies and Internet firms.

A meeting at the White House on Thursday included Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, Google official Vint Cerf, and Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based organization that advocates for Internet privacy.

"Taken as a package, it seems like a good start," Sohn said of the proposals. "It's not everything privacy advocates have asked for. But it's a recognition that there's an issue and a problem."

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, which has sued the government to challenge the NSA's surveillance, gave a more mixed assessment, calling the moves "a necessary and welcome first step" but "not nearly sufficient."

In Congress, advocates for restricting the NSA's authority offered partial endorsements.

House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who has pushed legislation to create an adversary system for the secret surveillance court, called the statements "an encouraging development."

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee and has frequently criticized the NSA, said Obama had taken "an important first step" but called for the administration to go further and "do a better job balancing our national security with our constitutional privacy rights."

Udall and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have led efforts to outlaw the bulk collection of telephone calling records. They have questioned whether collecting the records has provided any uniquely valuable intelligence that would not have been available with less sweeping methods.

On the other side of the debate, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who supports the bulk surveillance, said the intelligence panel would "undertake a major review of all intelligence data collection programs involving Americans."

The goal is "to develop proposals to increase transparency and improve privacy protections for these vital national security programs," she said.

Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano in Washington and Chris O'Brien in Los Angeles contributed to this report.