President Barack Obama said in a speech Friday that he will change the way the National Security Agency collects data from Americans' phone calls, in response to widespread concern that the intelligence program violates civil liberties. The government will retain access to the data for the time being, while transitioning towards a new system for housing the information.
The president said he will end the metadata collection program that tracks what numbers Americans call and for how long they speak, which is currently authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Revelations about systematic NSA surveillance were made public last year by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. The White House also released a presidential policy directive to outline signals intelligence activities.
According to prepared remarks, Obama said that post-9/11, the country must balance the need to prevent future terrorist attacks with giving the government too much power with too little oversight:
Through a combination of action by the courts, increased congressional oversight, and adjustments by the previous administration, some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I took office. But a variety of factors have continued to complicate America's efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties.
The panel appointed by the president made 46 recommendations in a 300-page report as to how the surveillance program can be changed. It suggested that the metadata collected be stored by phone companies themselves or kept in the possession of a third party, rather than by the NSA itself.
Obama said further study is needed to determine the best way to store the data, as phone companies have objected to being made gatekeeper, and there is currently no third party to perform the role. He said transition will proceed in two steps:
Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.
Next, I have instructed the intelligence community and Attorney General to use this transition period to develop options for a new approach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that the Section 215 program was designed to address without the government holding this meta-data.
Obama said recommendations for the best approach to changing the data collection procedures will be assessed before Section 215 is up for renewal on March 28.
Civil liberties advocates have objected to the surveillance activities the government carries out, saying they violate Americans' privacy in the name of national security. The American Civil Liberties Union says NSA data collections programs exceed the authority given to the government to track citizens' communications and the "surveillance state" must be scaled back.
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