Obama Calls For More Transparency, Privacy Protections At NSA

Coverage of President Obama's speech about the National Security Agency continues with a look at some of the key changes he outlined.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's talk more about changes to the National Security Agency that President Obama is announcing as we speak at the Justice Department. And we're joined in our studio by Tamara Keith and Tom Gjelten. And let's just begin.

Tom, you told us earlier today that technology companies wanted greater transparency. They want the public to know more about what the NSA is doing. What is the president proposing today?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: He's proposed three changes that will improve, will increase the transparency of what the NSA is doing. First of all, he's asking for more of the court opinions concerning this program; the oversight opinions, to be declassified. Most of those now only secret. He wants them - more of them to be declassified.

Second, so-called national security letters, which are types of subpoenas that the FBI can issue to get information. Right now, when those letters are issued, nobody can talk about them - forever. And he is saying that those should be disclosable.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Maybe not right away, but eventually.

GJELTEN: Not, but not indefinitely, should not indefinitely be kept secret. At some point, those should be made public.

And the third thing, and this is the really important one. When the NSA makes requests to technology companies, he, the president, wants the NSA to be more open to speak more publicly about when it makes those requests, how many of them, and so forth. That's something that has been very important to the tech companies.

INSKEEP: And why? Because they think that this is better for them for it to be known, the companies?

GJELTEN: They're thinking that customers will see that this does not happen all that often.

MONTAGNE: You know, Tamara, I'm wondering, most limitations of the NSA have been about spying on Americans. But the president is also talking about spying on foreigners. In fact, he says in his speech something along the lines of: If I want to talk to our allies and our leaders, we'll pick the phone and talk to them.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Yes. And that is specifically addressing the concern that the NSA had been gathering telephone data on leaders like Angela Merkel; close allies of the United States. What the president is saying and what his advisors are saying is that they are already spying on dozens fewer foreign leaders. But they are not being specific about exactly who that is.

Another part of this is that they're also extending certain protections that are currently afford to Americans; privacy protections. To foreign nationals, as well. And so there would be a higher threshold for gathering some of this telephone metadata and some of the data would not be allowed to be kept as long.

INSKEEP: This is a major change, isn't it, Tamara, because historically all of the protections, or nearly all of them have been about protecting American citizens from being spied on by their own government without a court intervening in some way.

KEITH: But the international uproar over this has been pretty significant, and it was important for the president to try to allay some of the concerns.

INSKEEP: Tom Gjelten, let me just ask you; we've heard a lot about what the president is announcing in lengthy speech. What is the president not saying?

GJELTEN: One big issue, Steve, that he did not address - he is not addressing at all - and that is what the NSA has been doing to undermine the technology companies' encryption of data. Those are the tools that those companies use to keep that data private. There's been concern that the NSA has been breaking that encryption. This has been something that a lot of people have talked about. As far as we can tell, he's not going anywhere near that. So we have to assume that he must have concluded that that decryption effort by the NSA is something that will continue because we don't see any evidence otherwise.

INSKEEP: OK. Tom, thanks very much. That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. He covers intelligence and other issues. Thank you.

GJELTEN: You bet.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Tamara Keith, one of our new White House correspondents. Good to have you along, Tamara.

KEITH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And again, President Obama today saying that the telephone records program run by the NSA will not continue, quote, "in its current form," although it appears it will continue in some form that has yet to be announced. We'll continue to have news and analysis as we learn it on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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