Obama Hints of Changes in Surveillance Program

President Acknowledges Citizens' Concerns of Possible Abuse
Obama Hints of Changes in Surveillance Program
President Obama briefs the press. (White House photo)

Although he defends the National Security Agency's bulk-collection system, President Obama says he may accept some of the proposals recommended by an independent panel to make significant changes in the NSA's surveillance programs.

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The presidential panel earlier in the week presented 46 recommendations that, if adopted, would limit NSA's surveillance methods, including curtailing how the government systematically collects and stores metadata from Americans' phone calls (see Panel Recommends Limits on NSA Surveillance). The panel recommends that the phone companies, not the government, store the collected metadata and that the government would need a court order to access that information.

"It is possible, for example, that some of the same information that the intelligence community feels is required to keep people safe can be obtained by having the private phone companies keep these records longer and to create some mechanism where they can be accessed in an effective fashion," the president said, speaking at a Dec. 20 press conference.

Obama said he believes the NSA hasn't improperly spied on Americans, but understands the jitters citizens have expressed about their privacy and civil liberties because how the surveillance programs are structured.

"It's important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data," Obama said. "What is also clear is from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse."

Applying American Values Beyond U.S. Borders

Obama also said the United States government must provide more confidence to the international community about its surveillance practices. Some foreign leaders, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, expressed frustration when they discovered the NSA tapped into their cell phones and collected phone and online records on their citizens.

"In some ways, what has been more challenging is the fact that we do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are not spying on Americans," Obama said. "We've had less legal constraint in terms of what we're doing internationally. But I think part of what's been interesting about this whole exercise is recognizing that in a virtual world, some of these boundaries don't matter anymore, and just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should. And the values that we've got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders I think perhaps more systematically than we've done in the past."

Obama said in the coming weeks he'll assess the panel's recommendations based on conversations with the intelligence community and others from inside and outside of government and will make a final decision on the recommendations in January.

Snowden Pardon?

Obama was asked if there were circumstances in which he would pardon former NSA contractor Edward Snowden for leaking top-secret documents about the government's surveillance programs. The possibility of a pardon was raised in a "60 Minutes" interview last week with Richard Leggett, who heads the task force looking into the Snowden leaks.

The president didn't directly answer the question about a plea deal or pardon. "I have to be careful here because Mr. Snowden is under indictment," he said. "I will leave it up to the courts and the attorney general to weigh in publicly on the specifics of Mr. Snowden's case."

But Obama addressed the impact of the leaks on the national dialogue on NSA surveillance.

"The fact of the matter is that the United States, for all our warts, is a country that abides by rule of law, that cares deeply about privacy, that cares about civil liberties, that cares about our constitution," he said. "And as a consequence of these disclosures, we've got countries who actually do the things that Mr. Snowden says he's worried about very explicitly - engaging in surveillance of their own citizens, targeting political dissidents, targeting and suppressing the press - who somehow are able to sit on the sidelines and act as if it's the United States that has problems when it comes to surveillance and intelligence operations. And that's a pretty distorted view of what's going on out there."

Obama said understanding the damage the leaks caused to American's intelligence capabilities and diplomacy is as important as having a public debate on the worthiness of the surveillance programs.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Host & Producer, ISMG Security Report; Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity & InfoRiskToday

Chabrow hosts and produces the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversees ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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