National Security

Obama Vague On Details In His Intelligence Proposals

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Intelligence officials, civil libertarians, technology executives, and foreign leaders: All of them had something at stake Friday when President Obama laid out his ideas for reforming the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. The president sought to balance security and privacy concerns in his speech.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in for Scott Simon. Intelligence officials, civil liberties advocates, technology executives and foreign leaders - all of them had something at stake yesterday when President Obama laid out his ideas for reforming the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. Those previously secret programs were revealed last summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The president sought to balance security and privacy concerns in his speech. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been looking into whether he satisfied his different audiences.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: With his speech at the Justice Department, the president laid out an approach to intelligence gathering he hoped would appeal to everyone. Mr. Obama stressed the importance of surveillance to the nation's security and he said he had seen no indication the mass collection of Americans' telephone records, for example, broke any laws or abused civil liberties. But, he said, there is a potential for that happening.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future.

GJELTEN: The NSA's bulk collection of U.S. telephone records - the numbers called and the duration of the calls but not the content - is the single-most controversial NSA surveillance program. Mr. Obama said he was ordering the end of that program as it currently exists with the data being held by the government. Instead, the records would be held somewhere else, but where he wasn't sure. The president pointed out that the review group he appointed said the data should be held either by the commercial providers of telephone service or by some third party. But Mr. Obama doesn't like either of those ideas.

OBAMA: Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns. On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single consolidated database would be carrying out what's essentially a government function but with more expense, more legal ambiguity, potentially less accountability.

GJELTEN: The president did say NSA analysts shouldn't search the telephone records no matter where they're kept without a court's permission. NSA critics weren't entirely satisfied. The American Civil Liberties Union found positive features in the president's speech, but after reading it a half-dozen times, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said he still didn't see the answer to a simple question.

ANTHONY ROMERO: Will or will not the U.S. government have at fingertip the data of my mother's phone calls? They shouldn't possess that data.

GJELTEN: Another group with keen interest in the NSA debate is the technology industry. Tech leaders say their businesses have been hurt by the news that NSA worked through and sometimes against tech companies to conduct surveillance. Many were hoping to hear the president say all that would end.

ALEX STAMOS: I would say most people in the tech industry are probably disappointed from the speech.

GJELTEN: Alex Stamos, cofounder of iSEC, a technology security firm, says he was hoping to hear the president to promise the NSA would stop undermining company efforts to protect their customers' data.

STAMOS: The other thing I would have hoped to hear is that the U.S. government would no longer infiltrate the networks of American technology companies. And he didn't say anything about that either.

GJELTEN: Finally, one more constituency the president needed to address yesterday: foreigners. The disclosure of NSA monitoring their communications, even the personal phone calls of foreign leaders, has damaged U.S. standing abroad. People in other countries don't have the same privacy protections U.S. persons have. The president tried to reassure them.

OBAMA: Our efforts will only be effective if ordinary citizens in other countries has confidence that the United States respects their privacy too. And 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.

GJELTEN: Administration officials say the president and his advisers worked on this speech right down to the last minute. The ambiguity around some of his proposals suggests it's not yet entirely clear what the administration really will do about NSA surveillance going forward. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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