President Barack Obama unequivocally praised the National Security Agency during his much-anticipated speech on mass surveillance reform Friday and the changes he announced won't have an immediate impact on the most controversial NSA spy programs.
Obama said the government's in-house bulk storage of American phone records will end and tasked Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence leaders with devising a plan to enact this pivot before March 28.
But that planning, senior administration officials said during a Friday morning call with reporters, will concentrate on how to preserve and replicate the capabilities of the existing program.
Obama defended the work done by the NSA, even as he announced his proposals for change, and condemned whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
NSA employees are "not abusing [their] authorities to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails," he assured Americans.
The NSA is "staffed by patriots" who are "laboring in obscurity," he said, and "play a central role in the defense of our nation."
Obama sniped at the "avalanche of unauthorized disclosures" and "crude characterizations" of NSA critics.
"I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or his motivations," Obama said, but "[the] sensational way in which these disclosures have come out have often shed more heat than light."
Among the options Holder and the NSA will consider are retention by phone companies of records currently stored five years by the NSA, the creation of an independent third party to store them, or – possibly – the termination of the collection if other data streams are deemed sufficient.
"This will not be simple," Obama said, citing "new privacy concerns" if phone companies altered their retention policies and "potentially less accountability" with a new third-party depository.
The president also announced NSA analysts will, effective immediately, only be able to perform two "hops" of a targeted phone number's contacts.
But according to a December report from Obama's White House surveillance review panel, three hops were performed in "very few instances" before this policy change. Three hops would affect approximately one million people if the target, their contacts and their contacts' contacts dialed only 100 numbers each in the past five years.
The president said the Justice Department would additionally approach the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – which secretly authorized the phone program for seven years using a liberal interpretation of the Patriot Act before Snowden revealed it in June – for approval of restructuring the database querying to first include judicial approval, except for in emergencies.
Currently, NSA analysts are able to query the phone database if they have reasonable and articulable suspicion that the primary target may be involved in wrongdoing – the same standard used by New York City police performing "stop and frisk" searches on urban youth.
That recommendation offers FISC an administrative function - if it choose to accept it - but not an adversarial decision-making process.
One of the significant recommendations from his White House panel's report was the establishment of a privacy advocate at the FISC court. Obama will seek limited non-governmental opinion during some FISC hearings.
Obama said he is asking Congress to generate a panel of privacy, civil liberties and technology experts to advise the FISC on novel legal issues.
The senior officials clarified to reporters the advisory panel's function would be restricted to advising the court on new types of cases.
The non-domestic surveillance functions of the NSA will also be modified, Obama announced.
A chain of diplomatic uproars occurred in 2013 as Snowden-leaked documents revealed the NSA eavesdropped on the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Mexican President Pena Nieto and others.