President Barack Obama said he will propose new limits on the surveillance of the National Security Agency during an interview when he defended the national security importance of the spying while conceding it has been "more aggressive" overseas.
Obama in August ordered a review group of legal and technology experts to "assess whether, in light of advancement in communications technologies," national security surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies fails to maintain the public trust. The five-member group, consisting of academics and former government officials, is scheduled to submit its final report to Obama by Dec. 15.
"I'll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA, and to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence, " Obama said during an interview with MSNBC on Thursday. "The NSA actually does a very good job about not engaging in domestic surveillance, not reading people's emails, not listening to the contents of their phone calls. Outside of our borders, the NSA's more aggressive. It's not constrained by laws."
This interview came on the heels of the Washington Post's report on Wednesday that the NSA is collecting nearly 5 billion records each day on the location of cell phones around the world. The media has reported numerous similar examples of the NSA's extensive monitoring of Internet traffic and phone calls, citing classified documents leaked to the press by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. Since those reports began in June, the Obama administration ordered increased transparency of documents related to the surveillance, including opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees requests for data from intelligence agencies. During the MSNBC interview, Obama said "we do have people who are trying to hurt us," but added that national security needs can be balanced with oversight on privacy rights from the FISC and Congress.
"Young people, rightly, are sensitive to the needs to preserve their privacy and to retain Internet freedom," Obama said. "And by the way, so am I."
Obama may announce increased transparency, along with new limits and oversight on the NSA, but that may not be enough to address the privacy concerns of the agency's bulk data collection, said Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.
"Rather than allowing the NSA to engage in mass surveillance to collect everyone's data and then decide who to target, the president should ensure that the NSA engages only in targeted surveillance; that is, first deciding who to target and then collecting only their data," said Bankston, a privacy and free expression lawyer. "True leadership in this moment would be for President Obama to say to the American people and to the rest of the world 'I am putting an end to the NSA's bulk collection programs, because it is contrary to the American way to treat every person who uses the telephone or the Internet like a terrorism suspect."
Members of Congress have also introduced a stack of proposals calling for increased transparency and oversight of the agency, including the Freedom Act in the House and the Senate, which would end the bulk data collection conducted by the NSA. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has defended the need for the NSA to maintain its data surveillance powers and introduced a bill that would increase transparency but would maintain the agency's data collection powers. However, Feinstein called for increased scrutiny of government surveillance in the wake of reports that the NSA monitored U.S. allies including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.