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President Obama backs limits on NSA phone collections

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 17 2014 3:14 p.m. MST

While the president has said he welcomed the review of the nation's sweeping surveillance programs, it's all but certain the study would not have happened without the leaks. Snowden faces espionage charges in the U.S., but is currently living in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum. Some privacy advocates have pressed Obama to grant Snowden amnesty or a plea deal if he returns to the U.S., but the White House has so far dismissed those ideas.

The surveillance revelations have caused particular anger abroad, especially over disclosures that the U.S. was monitoring the communications of friendly foreign leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama said new guidelines will cut back on foreign leader monitoring, expect when there is a compelling national security interest.

"The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance," Obama said.

The president's changes are expected to be met with pushback from some in the intelligence community, who have been pressing him to keep the surveillance programs largely intact.

Reacting to reports of Obama's plan, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, a former NSA director, said Friday that "no one will hold it (the phone data) as well."

Appearing on NBC's "Today" show, Hayden said there already has been "serious, irreversible harm to the ability" of the National Security Agency to collect intelligence.

The administration did not uncover any government abuse of the intelligence programs during its review process, officials said. But they said the president's decision-making was colored by the potential for abuses as surveillance technology becomes increasingly powerful.

Many of the president's recommendations were aimed at increasing the public's trust in the spying operations. That includes lifting some of the secrecy surrounding the demands that might be sent to companies for data on customers involved in a national security investigation. The White House says those demands, called "national security letters," will no longer remain secret indefinitely, unless the government establishes a need for the secrecy when they are being used in an investigation.

Roughly 20,000 such letters are sent yearly by the FBI to banks, telecommunication companies and other businesses, but recipients are barred from disclosing anything about them. Obama wants to change that and allow some of the information to be made public.

The president is also ordering the Justice Department and the Director of National Intelligence to look for ways to declassify future opinions from the FISA court.

Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, Nedra Pickler and Pete Yost contributed to this report.

Follow Julie Pace on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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