Obama Highlights Challenges Of Balancing Security, Liberty

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Coverage of President Obama's speech about proposed changes for the National Security Agency continues with more of his comments, plus analysis.


And this is Special Coverage on MORNING EDITION from NPR News of the President Obama's speech at the Department of Justice. He's speaking about changing the NSA and how it collects intelligence. He so far has given a history of intelligence collection and the importance of signals intelligence. Let's rejoin him for a few moments right now.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And yet, in our rush to respond to a very real and novel set of threats, the risks of government over-reach - the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security - also became more pronounced. We saw in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 our government engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values. As a senator, I was critical of several practices such as warrantless wire-taps. And all to often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.

Direct combination of action by the courts, increased congressional oversight and adjustments by the previous administration, some of the worst accesses that emerged after 9/11, were curbed by the time I took office. But a variety of factors have continued to complicated America's efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties. First, the same technological advances that all U.S. intelligence agencies to pin-point an Al-Qaeda cell in Yemen or an email between two terrorists in the Sehel also mean that many routine communications around the world are within our reach. And at a time when more and more of our lives are digital, that prospect is disquieting for all of us.

Second, the combination of increased digital information and powerful super-computers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats. It's a powerful tool. But the government collection and storage of such bulk data also creates a potential for abuse. Third, the legal safe-guards that restrict surveillance against U.S. persons without a warrant do not apply to foreign persons overseas. This is not unique to America. Few, if any, spy agencies around the world constrain their activities beyond their own borders. And the whole point of intelligence is to obtain information that is not publically available.

But America's capabilities are unique. And the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do. And finally, intelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy.


That's President Obama speaking today at the Justice Department, standing before a row of American flags. A number of distinguished intelligence officials and members of congress are in the audience. As the president discusses, in rather lengthy speech, what he sees the history of intelligence gathering in the United States as - particularly signals intelligence, the importance of it. Defending the importance, as we've heard in the last several minutes, and the president - we have the text of the speech now.

In the next few minutes, we'll be talking about how he plans to change the National Security Agency particularly the Metadata Program. That's the program that has gathered telephone call information from all Americans. And we have a few minutes before our next break here. So we're going to discuss what we're learning from this speech with a couple of our correspondents who've been covering this story. NPR's Tamara Keith and NPR's Tom Gjelten. And, Tom, let's start with you. You're looking at what the president is saying here. You've been talking with officials all morning. What is actually going to change about the National Security Agency?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Steve, the headline here is that this Metadata Program that we've been so focused on, where the government collects the telephone records of all Americans, that is not going to end but it's going to change. It's going to go through a process of transition and the most important change. Well, there are two big changes. One, the government will not be holding that data anymore. Where it's going to go, who's going to hold it? - Has not yet been determined.

INSKEEP: Is it going to be private phone companies? Some third party?

GJELTEN: There's going to be a period of transition. And the second change is that every time, every single time the NSA, an NSA analyst, wants to search that database the NSA is going to have to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and get that request approved. Those are two very important changes.

INSKEEP: And one thing to note here. He says in this speech, I am therefore ordering a transition. The transition you talked about. Tamara Keith I gather where he says ordering this must mean that he feels he has the authority to do that. He won't need to ask Congress for much to do this part?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, he's ordering a transition, however, Congress would be needed to actually make the change. So what he's doing is he's calling on the attorney general and the intelligence community over the next 60 days to conduct a pretty detailed review, consider where this data could be kept. And meet with Congress and sort of develop a plan that then would have to be implemented by Congress, but the things that are happening right now that they'd have to go through the FISA Court. The changes that he's called for, those things can happen immediately through executive action. However, the big ticket stuff will require Congress.

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing that has come up in all of this is a suggestion that he create some job called a private advocate. That is one person who makes decisions about who, you know, makes decisions about what's being done with this information. It doesn't look like he is going to do that in this speech.

KEITH: What is now being discussed is a panel of advocates. So these would be civil liberties and privacy advocates. It's not exactly clear to me what form that would take but that they would be consulted sometimes. They would be part of the review process sometimes.

INSKEEP: We're talking about people before this Secret Court that reviews warrants to spy on Americans, right? So...

GJELTEN: Yes. And the arrangement of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is a matter of legislation. So this is specifically, you start tampering with the way the FISA court works - that specifically requires Congressional action. And once you bring Congress in it sort of becomes unpredictable. I mean, they may choose to do less, they may choose to do more.

INSKEEP: And there may not be a defense lawyer, so to speak, for every single warrant. Is that what you're saying Tamara?

KEITH: They were saying that it would be only in novel instances, so not in every single case.

INSKEEP: OK. So we're learning more throughout the morning and we'll continue reporting this throughout the morning and throughout the day here on NPR News. But President Obama, as we've been hearing, is speaking at the Justice Department and saying, among other things, I am, quote, "ordering a transition that will end the bulk Metadata Program as it currently exists." And, from what we understand, this means that the National Security Agency will still be able to get access to phone records. It's just unclear who's going to keep those records and how the access will be provided. We'll bring you more as we learn in on NPR News.

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