5 Takeaways From The President's NSA Speech The president's speech Friday offered a revealing look into the nation's phone data collection program and the direction of the surveillance policy debate. But some of biggest controversies have been put off or pushed to Congress.
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5 Takeaways From The President's NSA Speech

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5 Takeaways From The President's NSA Speech


NPR's justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson was in the great hall at the Justice Department as the president delivered his remarks and she joins us now for some analysis. Now, Carrie, lots of recommendations and action items in that speech, but to you, what was the most important change, I mean, the things that will happen right away?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Audie, in terms of what the executive branch is going to be able to do on its own right away, the most important things are a couple of changes to the bulk metadata collection of U.S. phone records. The first, as the president says, he's going to order the NSA to only search with two degrees of separation from a terrorism suspect as opposed to three degrees of search or separation as is done now, that implicates potentially millions of records.

And second, the president said he's going to require the NSA and the Justice Department to ask judges on the secret surveillance court for permission before they search this big database, which will impose a new check and balance. But Audie, the information is still going to be collected by the NSA in bulk.

Beyond that, the president says, he wants the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to try to figure out in the next couple of months who should store this information. That's a huge open question that's going to be the subject of a lot of debate because, of course, the telecom companies don't want that responsibility and the NSA really doesn't want to give it up.

CORNISH: And Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, he says he's satisfied that the White House left these surveillance programs mostly intact. What did the president essentially leave the same?

JOHNSON: The biggest thing is something called national security letters. These are letters the FBI issues of its own accord, no outside oversight really outside the Justice Department, to get subscriber records, credit card information and the like. Last year, Audie, the FBI issued 20,000 of these letters and the president's own review group had recommended requiring judicial oversight for these letters, but the Justice Department and FBI said, that would take too long to get a response and it'll make it harder to investigate national security cases than it would an ordinary business crime.

The president nodded to that today in his speech and said he did not want that to happen. Instead, he says he's going to make some changes at the margins to these national security letters. He's going to let telecom companies issue annually or on some other basis some information about the number of requests they get for this information and he'll try to get rid of a gag order that recipients of these letters get that says, essentially, they're never able to talk about them at all.

That really is not far enough, Audie, for civil liberties groups who say if the FBI uses national security letters the way it's doing now in the future, it means the government is still going to be able to get lots and lots of information in bulk.

CORNISH: Now, foreign governments and companies have also been watching this whole process closely ever since it came out that a cell phone belonging to German leader Angela Merkel was monitored by the NSA. How did the president address their concerns?

JOHNSON: This is one of the most important parts of his speech, something he was able to do by executive fiat. The president said he's no longer going to spy on leaders of allied countries without a specific or essential national security purpose. He said he's also going to be appointing folks at the State Department to do more diplomacy in this regard. And the president also said he's going to extend, for the first time, some privacy protections not just to Americans, but to some foreign people who live overseas.

Some Republicans in Congress have said they don't want him to go that far, but the president pretty much went all the way there today.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

You're welcome.

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