Obama announces changes to NSA data collection

Posted at 12:20 PM, Jan 17, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-17 12:20:11-05

(CNN) – President Barack Obama on Friday defended the the “vital role” that intelligence-gathering plays in the nation’s security, as he nonetheless announced changes aimed at increasing transparency and protecting privacy and civil liberties.

Presidential guidance released as Obama spoke at the Justice Department said the government will not collect intelligence “for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent, or for disadvantaging persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.”

He illustrated the nexus of intelligence and security, recalling events in American history going back to Paul Revere’s famous ride.

Obama said that “a variety of factors have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties,” citing technological advances that allow supercomputers to gather huge amounts of digital data as a reason for needing to reform U.S. surveillance programs.

The reforms that Obama announced will end the controversial National Security Agency telephone bulk collection program as it currently exists, officials said.

Intelligence analysts will now need court approval to go into phone records routinely stored by the NSA, a change resulting from concerns raised by classified leaks last year by former agency contractor Edward Snowden that revealed the government’s collection of phone “metadata.”

No evidence of abuse has been found involving surveillance programs, but changes are needed in response to legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised, Obama said.

The President remained critical of Snowden, who is now living under asylum in Russia following his series of leaks that began last June and transformed the debate on national security surveillance in the post 9/11 era.

“Our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” Obama said. “If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”

Obama also called on Congress to authorize establishment of a new panel of outside advocates to participate in “significant cases” before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that handles intelligence collection issues.

He also said that the United States “is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security” and added that “unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”

The scope of phone and e-mail snooping by NSA revealed by Snowden triggered outrage from civil libertarians and prompted key members of Congress from both parties to weigh changes in national security law.

Nothing in his administration’s initial review of U.S. intelligence operations and “nothing that I have learned since indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” Obama said.

While the bulk telephone data remains with the NSA for now, Obama wants those records moved out of government hands, though it is uncertain where, a senior administration official said.

Changes imposed by the President will permanently place his signature on the intelligence initiative and help define his legacy as a chief executive who promised a more open and transparent government when he entered the White House five years ago.

NSA domestic and international phone and e-mail surveillance is considered some of the most widespread intelligence gathering performed by the U.S. government.

The agency and its supporters believe data collection authority is crucial to discovering potential terrorists who haven’t yet come to the attention of national security officials.

But critics say it violates privacy rights of Americans whose data is collected even though there is no suspicion that they pose a security threat.

Federal courts are divided on NSA telephone data collection. One judge in Washington ruled preliminarily in December that it was probably unconstitutional on privacy grounds. A second judge ruling in another case in New York subsequently found it lawful.

The top-secret the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the legal aspects of surveillance, earlier this month reauthorized the program for another three months.

The program is covered under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and has been authorized 36 times over the past seven years.

By Tom Cohen. Jim Acosta and Mariano Castillo. CNN’s Matt Hoye. Evan Perez, and Bill Mears contributed to this report.