WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is putting limits on the harvesting of Americans’ phone records and seeking revisions to a program that sweeps up email and Internet data around the world, seven months after former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden began divulging the secret spying.
Here are some questions and answers about Obama’s plan:
Q: Why did Obama decide to make changes?
A: The president has been under pressure since Snowden took an estimated 1.7 million documents from the NSA and gave them to journalists around the world. The U.S. public, Congress and allies overseas were shocked to learn the extent of the NSA’s post-9-11 surveillance. Soon after Snowden’s disclosure in June, Obama promised to review the system that has changed rapidly as technology improved.
On Friday, Obama defended the work of the U.S. spying apparatus as necessary to protect Americans and international allies. He left the programs mostly intact, but added restrictions.
Q: Do the changes happen right away?
A: No. Some involve altering the USA Patriot Act, and that requires Congress to draft, debate and pass legislation. Other changes won’t be carried out until the administration resolves big logistics questions. In some cases, Obama ordered the Justice Department and spy agencies to figure out how to implement new privacy protections, which will take time.
Q: Will the government get out of my phone records?
A: For now, the NSA will keep collecting and storing call data.
The program gathers the phone numbers called and the length of conversations, but not the content of the calls. Obama says the NSA needs to tap those records sometimes to find people linked to suspected terrorists.
But eventually he wants the bulk data to be stored somewhere out of the government’s hands, to reduce the risk that the information will be abused.
Q: So where will my records go?
That’s not yet decided. Obama told Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to find a solution within 60 days, about the time the NSA surveillance programs are up for their quarterly reauthorization by a secret national security court. That could mean arranging for phone companies to store the records, although the companies already are balking at that. The government could create a new third-party entity to hold the records, or come up with some other plan.
In the meantime, Obama ordered two immediate changes:
—Analysts hunting through data will have to stay a little closer to the original suspected terrorist or organization. They will be able to look at communications two steps away, instead of three.
—The administration will require a special judge’s advance approval before intelligence agencies can examine someone’s data. The NSA has been able to decide for itself whether it has reasonable cause to run a query.
Q: What about the NSA reading my email or watching my online activities?
A: The bulk collection of online data is supposed to target only people outside the United States, as part of national security investigations. But it does end up sweeping up information about some Americans in the process. Obama asked Holder and Clapper to consider whether new privacy safeguards could be added.
Q: What about the phone calls and emails of people living abroad?
A: Obama says the U.S. should respect the privacy of non-Americans, too. He said he will extend to foreigners some of the protections against spying that apply to U.S. citizens. He directed Holder and Clapper to look into new restrictions on how long the U.S. can hold data collected overseas and how that data is used.
The U.S. won’t spy on ordinary people who don’t threaten national security, Obama says.
He issued a directive saying that intelligence-gathering can’t be employed to suppress criticism of the United States or provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies.
Q: What about spying on world leaders?
A: In response to international criticism, Obama is making assurances that the U.S. won’t spy on its allies’ heads of state. But the White House declined to say which world leaders are on that “friends” list.
Obama noted that other countries, including some who have complained about the NSA, constantly try to snoop on the U.S. government’s phone calls and email. He says there are compelling national security reasons for snooping on foreign governments and the U.S. won’t apologize for being better at it.
Q: What else did Obama do?
A: Obama called for creation of a panel of advocates to represent privacy and civil liberty concerns before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees the spy programs. The advocates would argue before the court only in certain significant cases, such as those dealing with a new issue. Congress would have to vote to make this happen, however.
Obama also is asking a senior White House adviser, John Podesta, to lead a broad review of the use of “big data,” with input from technology companies and privacy experts.
Other changes include a plan to reveal a little more information about the secret national security letters that the government issues to banks, phone companies and others to demand information about certain customers.
Q: Will the changes satisfy critics of the programs?
A: No. Many civil liberties advocates and tech industry representatives say Obama didn’t go far enough.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called it “the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration.” Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., said Congress “must do what the president apparently will not” and take action to “close the era of secret law.”
Several Democratic critics of the NSA said more must be done but applauded Obama’s first step.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said: “I tip my hat to him. This is the beginning of the mission, but he clearly listened.”
Q: So what will Congress do?
A: Too soon to say. Obama’s actions might breathe new life into the major bill to rein in the NSA, which has been blocked so far by congressional leaders in both parties.
Polls show Americans disapproving of some of NSA’s snooping, and many rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats have pushed for changes that go beyond what Obama announced Friday.
Last July, a plan to shut down NSA’s phone call database fell only a few votes shy of passing the House.
Yet the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees have all endorsed the bulk collection of phone records as a valuable tool in terrorism investigations.
House Speaker John Boehner said the House would review any legislation proposed by Obama but “will not erode the operational integrity of critical programs that have helped keep America safe.”
Q: Will Obama’s changes make it harder to track terrorists?
For months intelligence agency leaders have vigorously argued that their sweeping programs help stop terrorists. On Friday, Clapper said Obama was focused on striking the right balance.
The president’s own review board recommended that the NSA’s bulk collection of millions of phone records come to an end.
The review said the information gleaned from the “metadata” hasn’t been essential to preventing attacks and could have been obtained through more conventional routes. It also noted that not all phone service’s records are collected, reducing the program’s usefulness.
Yet some changes, such as Obama’s new requirement that analysts get a judge’s approval before querying the phone database, could slow investigations.
Q: What happened to Snowden?
Snowden fled the country before his revelations became public. He is currently living in Russia, granted temporary asylum from the criminal charges he faces in the United States for disseminating classified information.
Some supporters call him a hero and want Obama to grant him amnesty or a plea deal. The White House has dismissed those notions.
“I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations,” Obama said. “I will say that our nation’s defence depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets.”
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes, Stephen Braun, Alan Fram and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.
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