Trust Exercises: Obama's Surveillance Reforms Toe A Fine Line

In a major speech on Friday, President Obama laid out reforms to U.S. intelligence gathering procedures. NPR Washington correspondent Scott Horsley reports on the balance that the president is attempting to strike between national security needs and privacy concerns.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Seven months after NSA leaker Edward Snowden turned a spotlight on American surveillance tactics, President Obama called today for changes in the way the U.S. government keeps tabs on people. In a major speech, the president said the NSA should have access to Americans' phone records but that the agency should need permission to see them, and should not be in the business of storing those records. He also stopped short of endorsing some of the other recommendations made by his own surveillance review panel.

NPR's Scott Horsley begins our coverage.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama says there's a long and proud tradition of secret surveillance in this country, from Paul Revere's clandestine monitoring of British troops to Allied code-breakers in World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms.

HORSLEY: But in recent years, the president says, the nature of surveillance has changed. Terrorism suspects and other targets are now more distant and widely dispersed, while the tools of spy craft are more powerful than ever.

OBAMA: The same technological advances that allow U.S. intelligence agencies to pinpoint an al-Qaida cell in Yemen, or an email between two terrorists in the Sahel, 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.

HORSLEY: Revelations about the vast reach of the government surveillance dragnet are one of the factors in the president's own slumping approval ratings. Since the first leaks by Edward Snowden last summer, polls have shown a growing number of Americans don't find Obama trustworthy.

As part of an effort to regain that trust, the president said today, the government should stop its warehousing of virtually all U.S. telephone records. He wants to preserve the capability to sift through those records for potential terror suspects, though, and he's asked his aides to suggest alternatives. Leaving the records with the phone companies or a private third party, as his review panel suggested, presents problems of its own. And the president did not say how he would resolve them. The president did say the government should have to get approval from a special surveillance court before combing through the phone records. And he set new limits on how far those searches can go.

OBAMA: Our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power. It depends on the law.

HORSLEY: The president stopped short of accepting several other recommendations from his review panel. One would have required a judge to sign off on national security letters, which the FBI uses like subpoenas to secretly gather information. Another would have created a full-time privacy advocate to argue against the government in surveillance court. Obama did call for an advisory panel to assist the court in some significant cases. And he says he's open to working with Congress on additional privacy protections.

OBAMA: I'm confident that we can shape an approach that meets our security needs while upholding the civil liberties of every American.

HORSLEY: The president was less specific about protecting the privacy of people outside America who are not covered by the U.S. Constitution. He's asked for new safeguards, though, to limit the kinds of information that can be collected abroad and how long it can be stored.

OBAMA: People around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security.

HORSLEY: Obama also promised no more eavesdropping on friendly heads of state. That follows protests from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

OBAMA: The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to know what they think about an issue, I'll pick up the phone and call them rather than turning to surveillance.

HORSLEY: Obama was adamant that the United States will not abandon its surveillance efforts, or compromise national security. But in the long run, he says, surveillance will be more effective if it has the trust of people here at home and around the world.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.