President Obama Proposes Reforms To NSA Surveillance

After months of debate about the National Security Agency, President Obama delivered statements on Friday about how the agency collects intelligence. He declared that advances in technology had made it harder "to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties." He also announced changes to surveillance policies.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour at the intersection of security and privacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We cannot prevent terrorist attacks - or cyberthreats - without some capability to penetrate digital communications.

CORNISH: After seven months of debate, often heated, over how the National Security Agency collects intelligence - including the mass collection of Americans' phone records - President Obama weighed in today with a major speech, and a prescription for change. But he made one thing clear from the start. Concerns over how the U.S. gathers intelligence are not new to his administration. In fact, he says, he ordered some changes years ago, after first coming into office.

OBAMA: What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale. Not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review - 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.

BLOCK: President Obama went to great lengths today to defend the intelligence community and specifically, the embattled NSA.

OBAMA: Laboring in obscurity, often unable to discuss their work even with family and friends, the men and women at the NSA know that if another 9/11 or massive cyberattack occurs, they will be asked by Congress and the media why they failed to connect the dots.

BLOCK: The president did, though, acknowledge that privacy safeguards have to be updated, to keep pace with technology. And to that end, he introduced a number of key policy changes.

CORNISH: At the top of that list, a gradual transition away from the government holding onto bulk phone records, also known as metadata; though who will hold them is still an open question. And during this transition, the president promised that metadata would only be searchable after a judicial finding or in a true emergency.

BLOCK: President Obama also called on Congress to, in his words, authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

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