U.S. President Barack Obama will work with Congress to limit data collection by the National Security Agency under the Patriot Act and will appoint an independent board to review the country's surveillance programs, he said Friday.
The Obama administration will take several steps to restore public confidence in why the NSA and other agencies collect telephone and Internet communications in the name of fighting terrorism, Obama said during a press conference. Leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have led to questions, some of them ill-informed, about the amount of data the U.S. government is collecting, Obama said.
An open debate about the surveillance programs is needed, Obama said. "It's not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs," he said. "The American people need to have confidence in them as well."
As part of a package of proposed reforms, Obama has asked the NSA and the U.S. Department of Justice to release as much information as possible about the surveillance programs and the legal reasoning behind them, he said. The president will also push for changes at the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, including adding a privacy advocate when agencies ask the court for new surveillance orders, Obama said.
The independent board that will review the U.S. surveillance programs and their privacy implications will issue an initial report in 60 days, Obama said.
Obama called both U.S. intelligence officers and people questioning the surveillance programs "patriots." It's right for privacy advocates to ask questions about the surveillance programs, "particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Obama said.
But Obama also defended two programs described in Snowden's leaks, a data collection program targeting U.S. telephone records and a second program collecting Internet communications of people suspected of being connected to terrorists.
Both programs are important in the U.S. government's fight against terrorism, Obama said. He said he's confident that intelligence agents are not abusing their authority under the programs.
"America is not interested in spying on ordinary people," he said.
Also on Friday, the Obama administration released a white paper defending and describing the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records under the Patriot Act.
The telephone records collection program is important because, "by analyzing it, the Government can determine whether known or suspected terrorist operatives have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities," the white paper said.
Courts have determined that the large-scale collection of records can meet the Patriot Act's relevance requirement because relevance is "a broad standard that permits discovery of large volumes of data in circumstances where doing so is necessary to identify much smaller amounts of information ... that directly bears on the matter being investigated," the white paper said.
Obama said he's consulted with companies and civil liberties groups while determining how to address public concerns about the surveillance programs. Obama met with Apple, AT&T, Google, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups this week, according to a report in Politico.
During one meeting, the ACLU and other advocates "re-emphasized concern about the chilling effect the NSA surveillance programs have on our democracy," particularly free speech rights, Susan Herman, president of the ACLU, said in a statement.
Obama needs to take big steps to rein in the surveillance programs, she added. "While the White House should be commended for engaging outside perspectives, it's not clear yet that the White House appreciates the need to scale back these surveillance programs substantially instead of just rationalizing or tinkering with them," Herman said.
The Internet Infrastructure Coalition, with members including Google, Rackspace and Tucows, praised Obama's decision to revisit the surveillance programs. The surveillance programs need greater transparency and strong privacy protections, the group said in a statement.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]