Seeking to calm a furor over U.S. surveillance, President Barack Obama on Friday called for ending the government's control of phone data from hundreds of millions of Americans and immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get a secretive court's permission before accessing the records.
The president also directed intelligence agencies to stop spying on friendly international leaders and called for extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens whose communications are scooped up by the U.S.
Obama was announcing the changes during a highly anticipated speech at the Justice Department. His announcements capped a months-long White House review following former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden's leaks about secret surveillance programs. If fully implemented, the president's proposals would lead to significant changes to the NSA's bulk collection of phone records, which is authorized under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
In a presidential directive that accompanied the announcements, the White House said that intelligence collection is necessary for the United States "to protect its citizens and the citizens of its allies and partners from harm," but at the same time "the public has legitimate privacy interests in the handling of their personal information."
Even with Obama's announcements, key questions about the future of the surveillance apparatus remain unanswered. While Obama wants to strip the NSA of its ability to store the phone records, he offered no recommendation for where the data should be moved. Instead, he gave the intelligence community and the attorney general 60 days to study options, including proposals from a presidential review board that recommended the telephone companies or an unspecified third party.
Privacy advocates say moving the data outside the government's control could minimize the risk of unauthorized or overly broad searches by the NSA. However, the phone companies have balked at changes that would put them back in control of the records, citing liability concerns if hackers or others were able to gain unauthorized access.