President Obama proposed new safeguards for the government's vast surveillance of communications in the U.S. and abroad, adding additional judicial review and disclosure requirements, but largely leaving in place programs that he said were needed to "remain vigilant in the face of threats."
His proposals, unveiled in a long-anticipated speech on Friday, drew warm reviews from intelligence officials, but expressions of disappointment from many civil liberties activists and some prominent technology company executives.
Under Obama's plan, the Maryland-based National Security Agency still would have broad authority to intercept e-mail and other Internet communications overseas, even when its dragnet pulls in the communications of Americans who are corresponding with foreigners. Intelligence officials say this power has been key to counter-terrorism investigations.
Obama proposed more significant changes for the program that has generated the most public controversy: The government's database on nearly all telephone calls in the United States, which shows when calls took place and which numbers are connected to which other numbers.
Under Obama's plan, the government no longer would hold the so-called telephony metadata, but he left undecided who would. Telephone companies have resisted taking on the cost and liability of holding the data themselves, and some prominent members of Congress say that involving a private party would increase the risk of leaks and other problems.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that he agreed with "many" of the president's proposals — but did not specify which ones.
"The solution to regaining the public's trust will center on strengthening oversight, promoting transparency and safeguarding Americans' civil liberties," he said. "These are not mutually exclusive goals."
Obama intended his speech to quell concerns about U.S. spy practices. He said he recognized the unease many Americans have felt in the seven months since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to reveal details about the agency's activities.
Obama pledged greater transparency, and said leaders could not simply say: "Trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect."
But he staunchly defended the nation's intelligence agencies, saying they had not misused their vast powers in the effort to detect and disrupt terror plots.
After repeated reviews, "nothing that I have learned," Obama said, "indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens …. They are not abusing authority in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails."
He told listeners the country faces "real enemies and threats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them."
Obama gave the Justice Department and the Director of National Intelligence until March 28 to decide who would hold the telephone data. He left unanswered the question of whether the government would continue to collect the data if no solution is found. Officials said that issue had not yet been decided.
In a related decision, Obama surprised some intelligence officials by directing that for now, they seek a judge's approval before mining the voluminous cache of records.
The president added that to his speech less than a day before delivery, officials said. But the last-minute move was an exception. Most of Obama's proposals resulted from months of negotiations within the administration and were carefully honed to avoid interfering with the work of the intelligence community.
"We think these are reasonable, moderate steps," said one senior intelligence official who was involved in negotiations with the White House and asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.
By contrast, civil liberties advocates and officials of technology companies had hoped Obama would go further in curtailing surveillance.
"We are disappointed that President Obama chose not to end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone call records, nor to provide any specifics on how he would significantly alter it," said Virginia Sloan, president of the bipartisan Constitution Project. "We hope to see Congress act decisively to end all bulk collection of our private records. …
"As long as the NSA continues to hold this sensitive data, or to map and sift through it without tighter restrictions, the phone call collection program poses an unacceptable threat to our fundamental freedoms."
Others said they would wait to see more details.
Obama "has opened the door to ratcheting back NSA surveillance of innocent Americans and non-citizens alike," said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "But for every answer he gave, there are several new questions about how he plans to implement these changes."
Obama said nothing about two of the technology industry's biggest concerns: government efforts to defeat encryption of communications and its exploitation of so-called "back doors" that allow access to computer programs. Technology firms worry they may lose business to overseas competitors if customers think they are too susceptible to NSA eavesdropping.
In one move that had been urged by civil liberties groups, Obama said he wants to set up a new panel of privacy advocates who can counter the positions of government lawyers before the special court that oversees intelligence gathering.
Currently, the judges hear only one side of the argument. But the public advocates would be called in only in cases involving broad policy issues, not in the majority of proceedings, he said.
Obama sought to reassure a global audience that the NSA will no longer spy on the heads of friendly governments, but left open the possibility of such eavesdropping if needed for a "compelling national security purpose."
He also issued a policy directive ordering intelligence agencies to provide limited new protections for the privacy rights of foreign persons.
"People around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people," Obama said. And he defended the U.S. against criticism from abroad. Many governments that have criticized U.S. spying do the same or more, he said, and the debate here over surveillance is a sign of a healthy democracy.
"No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account," he said.
The president would let the FBI continue to use so-called national security letters to secretly demand documents from banks, credit card companies and other firms that hold records. But he proposed new rules that in most cases would require the government to eventually tell suspects what information the government sought.
The announcements drew a mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Udall of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, all prominent critics of the NSA, issued a statement praising Obama's speech as a good first step but quickly moved on to other proposals they wished he had made.
Ruppersberger said he is "constantly" reviewing intelligence programs.
"Since the leaks, I have been working with my colleagues to evaluate these programs to determine how we can increase transparency," the Baltimore County lawmaker said. "It is important to point out that while the leaks have revealed no domestic illegality, they have greatly damaged the public's trust in our national security programs.
"Even though many believe the programs are too far-reaching, no wrongdoing was uncovered. The men and women who serve at NSA are patriots."
Sen. Rand Paul, a staunch critic of government surveillance, said he was "disappointed in the details" of what Obama had proposed. The Kentucky Republican said the president's solution amounts to "the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration."
White House political advisers, however, hope that the speech will quiet most public concern outside Washington.
On that front, the president may not have that high a bar to cross. Polls have shown that the public disapproves of the NSA's surveillance activities, but that many Americans also consider the work necessary to defeat terror plots. Obama does not seem to have paid a significant political price over Snowden's disclosures.
Within the tech sector, advocates expressed dismay at the limits of what Obama proposed.
"We'd hoped for, and the Internet deserves, more," said Alex Fowler, head of global privacy and public policy for Mozilla. "Without a meaningful change of course, the Internet will continue on its path toward a world of balkanization and distrust, a grave departure from its origins of openness and opportunity."
A coalition of major technology companies that includes Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter expressed their concerns more diplomatically, praising Obama for "positive progress on key issues" including allowing companies to disclose how often they provide data to the government.
But, the coalition said in a statement, "crucial details remain to be addressed" and "additional steps are needed."
Staff Writers Michael A. Memoli, Jessica Guynn and Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun