Obama fuels reform on some but not all NSA spying

President admits he has been torn between how to protect privacy rights and how to protect the U.S. from terror attacks.
Associated Press
Jan 19, 2014


President Barack Obama's orders to change some U.S. surveillance practices put the burden on Congress to deal with a national security controversy that has alarmed Americans and outraged foreign allies. Yet he avoided major action on the practice of sweeping up billions of phone, email and text messages from across the globe.

In a speech at the Justice Department on Friday, Obama said he was placing new limits on the way intelligence officials access phone records from hundreds of millions of Americans — and was moving toward eventually stripping the massive data collection from the government's hands.

His promises to end government storage of its collection of data on Americans' telephone calls — and require judicial review to examine the data — were met with skepticism from privacy advocates and some lawmakers.

But Obama has made it nearly impossible for reluctant leaders in Congress to avoid making some changes in the U.S. phone surveillance they have supported for years.

Obama admitted he has been torn between how to protect privacy rights and how to protect the U.S. from terror attacks — what officials have called the main purpose of the spy programs.

"The challenge is getting the details right, and that is not simple," he said.

His speech had been anticipated since former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden made off with an estimated 1.7 million documents related to surveillance and other NSA operations and gave them to several journalists around the world. The revelations in the documents touched off a public debate about whether Americans wanted to give up some privacy in exchange for intelligence-gathering on terror suspects.

The president said his proposals "should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe."

Obama acknowledged more needs to be done, but he largely left it to Congress to work out the details.

The NSA says it does not listen in on the phone calls or read the Internet messages without specific court orders on a case-by-case basis. But intelligence officials do collect specific information about the calls and messages, such as how long they lasted, to try to track communications of suspected terrorists.

Plans to end the sweep of phone records have been building momentum in Congress among both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Congressional leadership and the chairmen of the intelligence committees who for years have signed off on the programs have opposed dramatic changes.

Obama's order signals that the phone program must be overhauled, and lawmakers called his speech a welcome first step.

"It is now time for Congress to take the next step by enacting legislation to appropriately limit these programs," said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees, which have proposed far less sweeping legislation, threw the responsibility back to Obama.

"We encourage the White House to send legislation with the president's proposed changes to Congress so they can be fully debated," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in a coolly worded statement.

Privacy advocates called Obama's proposal a shell game — by assigning the collection to a new, as-of-yet undecided entity instead of ending it outright. They had even sharper criticism for the speech's scant attention to the NSA program that intercepts billions of overseas Internet messages and phone conversations from foreigners each day.

The program, authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the U.S. government to read or listen to the messages and phone calls as long as they do not target American citizens who live overseas.

Obama said he would seek new restrictions on the government's ability to collect or use the overseas messages that accidentally included messages or phone calls from Americans. But he did not spell out how, or by when.

Nor did Obama specify any sweeping changes to the so-called 702 program to protect foreigners' privacy, although he did broadly promise to order "the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas." He said that would include limiting the time that the U.S. holds the foreign information it collects and restricting its use.

Given the mass of the foreign communications surveillance, the reforms offered Friday offered just a "sliver" of respite from fears of U.S. spying, said Matt Simons, director of social and economic justice at Chicago-based software company ThoughtWorks.

"There was a clear attempt to narrow down what we're talking about to the easiest, lowest-hanging fruit," said Simons, whose company is among a number of U.S. tech firms demanding broad reforms to prevent their clients from defecting to foreign firms that might offer more protections.

Mark Jaycox, legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, predicted that the foreign surveillance under Section 702 will be Congress' next target after the government stops storing its collection of Americans' phone records. The group is suing the NSA to reveal more information about the programs.

At a Brookings Institution forum Friday afternoon, intelligence experts debated the effects of Obama's orders on privacy, security and commerce. While the collection of Americans' phone records "is the molten core of the political debate," the surveillance of foreigners' communications is at the heart of NSA operations, senior fellow Benjamin Wittes said.

Massive changes likely would not be needed, Wittes said, because U.S. intelligence officials generally don't eavesdrop on or read foreign communications they don't need. He called Obama's pledge to protect foreigners' privacy rights a significant step toward rebuilding U.S. trust overseas.

"It is very hard to overstate the sort of spiritual importance of that statement," Wittes said. "This might be an area where the spiritual statement goes a long way without actually changing very much."


Ned Mandingo

Obama is a lying criminal like everyone else in washington.

The Big Dog's back

Right wingers are all for spying on people, as long as they are the ones doing the spying. But spy on them? Oh no, unconstitutional.

Darwin's choice

Prove it, moonbat!

getit right be4...

Whats a moon bat lol?


how about u look up the omnibus anti terrorism act which was the blueprint for the patriot act and see who penned it before you spout BS. It was Joe Biden which last I checked was a democrat. look it up burger boy


As much as I hate to say it, Big Dog has a valid point. The problem, of course, is that the reverse is just as true.

When the Bush administration pushed the USA PATRIOT Act through Congress in the wake of 9-1-1, conservatives were all for it. So were Democrats. The votes were overwhelmingly in favor of the Act! At the time, the only people who complained about it included the very liberal ACLU. That marked one of those rare instances where I was solidly behind the group's efforts.

When Obama ran for office, he cited such things as the USA PATRIOT Act as being both wrong and unconstitutional. Though I rarely agreed with anything that Candidate Obama said, he was right on that point! And then he became president, and what happened? Not only was the USA PATRIOT Act renewed, but similar and even MORE invasive programs were instituted and broadly operated! Who's complaining? Mostly conservatives.

The fact that conservatives were silent or complicit when the USA PATRIOT Act was passed, and the fact that the ACLU, et al, is silent NOW, speaks volumes. What it says is that BOTH administrations, BOTH Congresses, and BOTH political parties place liberty and the Constitution a distant second (at best) to power and expedience.

Big Dog, I get it, and you're right. But do you have the fortitude to stand up and agree that the Obama administration is just as wrong as the previous in this particular regard?

The Big Dog's back

I respect your opinion. I believe some people need watched, but not for political purposes. You are right in your assessment.


Ouch. You're right AGAIN! Twice in one day...

Some people DO need to be watched. Get a warrant. If they truly need to be watched, there's no problem making the case and doing the watching constitutionally. Fishing (and phishing) expeditions are just plain WRONG, and I don't care WHO'S doing it!

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

Who are you and where's Big Dog?! I may disagree with him but if you've harmed one hair on his fuzzy body you'll pay for it, villain!

On a serious note, I agree with you on this and am happy to say so here with this comment.


Freedom is lost slowly in drips and drabs.

This law is passed, then that one and another, all in the name of protecting you.

One hardly notices it until one day you no longer live in a free country and you are 'perhaps' of the mind to wonder: How did this happened?

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security."

"An excerpt from ‘They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45′ by Milton Mayer"


The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”
― George Orwell, Animal Farm


What surprises me is that the NSA has been around since 1952 and no one had anything to say the NSA spied on martin Luther king no problem ; Mandela was labeled a terrorist because of the NSA no problem now that obame is in office its a problem. Its bs how so many people have a problem with everything Obama but not with any other president. I have relatives and friends who served in Iraq because of bush and people had and still defend it but will attack Obama about Afghanistan.


The NSA was once such a secret that people in and around DC would joke that "NSA" stands for "No Such Agency." Most of what it did at the time was just as secretive.

Once people found out about it, the spying on Martin Luther King was roundly condemned (as it should be). Mandela actually WAS a terrorist by almost any definition (and his ex-wife, Winnie, was one serious activist/terrorist herself). That Mandela grew into being a true statesman doesn't change his past, only his future. Unfortunately, the lionizing of Mandela in the world media tended not to address his past PRIOR to his lengthy prison term...

You're also wrong about people only having a problem with Obama. Or don't you remember all of the liberals standing up and protesting against the Iraq War while Bush was still president? Most of those same people are silent concerning Obama's prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. The people complaining about THAT are criticizing Obama's war "strategies" (I use the term exceedingly loosely).

Meanwhile, under Obama, far more Americans have died in Afghanistan than under the Bush administration, and the Taliban have taken back huge sections of Iraq that people like your relatives and friends fought and died to win. Say whatever you will about the wars, but I'll bet you can't come up with much good to say about the Taliban, can you?


Where was the complaining about the NSA when bush was president so you are wrong were was your false news you love to quote. If bin laden would of been tooken out when bush had the chance there would of been no need for Afghanistan. The us spied on Mandela for south Africa because he rebel and spoke out about their practices isn't that what republicans do everyday even on here. Who said anything about the taliban. Since you republicans disagree with everything doesn't that make you a terrorist or since false news say it isn't it must be true.


"If bin laden would of been tooken out..."

I refuse to fight a battle of wits with an unarmed man. I will, however, end my involvement by noting that I'm not all that surprised you're apparently a Democrat!


My life goes on the same day after day, year after year. I haven't lost any liberties and I certainly don't believe someone is sitting with an earpiece listening to my phone conversations. I really don't care how much data is collected if it will prevent another tragedy such as 9/11 or what happened in Boston.


Re: "I really don't care how much data is collected if it will prevent another tragedy such as 9/11 or what happened in Boston."

Since they have been keeping and sorting data before those two events, Especially the second one,I don't see how them doing their data mining has done much good. But then I look at what they have accomplished, not stopping or even knowing who those brothers were, or anything about them even after they were told by the brothers home country. Again why is it being needed with results like that?


The thing is, tk, is that they didn't NEED all of this spying to have prevented 9/11 (our government was warned by intelligence from other countries, and had plenty of intelligence information of its own it chose to disregard), nor did they need it to have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing (again, our government chose to disregard warnings from Russian intelligence).

I don't have anything to hide any more than YOU do. That doesn't mean I don't close the door when I use the bathroom, or that I won't tell you it's none of your dam*ed business if you ask now much I make or what I weigh! Are you TRULY okay with everybody knowing everything about you? Really?

"He who would give up liberty for security deserves neither." Benjamin Franklin

"Liberty requires responsibility. That is why most men dread it." George Bernard Shaw

The Big Dog's back

If Obama did get rid of some of these programs, and we had another 9/11, the right wingers would be the 1st ones to blame Obama for getting rid of the programs.


They would say it was his fault because he was scared and gave into the Muslims even though bush had more personal relationships with Arab and Muslims. Obama did a lot I don't agree with and bush did some things I do agree with all I'm saying is its stupid to blame the NSA on obama when its been around far before. That's like the republicans that blame obama for bush response to hurricane Katrina.


This is the guy who ran on "Hope and Change". He "changes" little because if he does he is worried what the other "party" will say. So he keeps doing the same things and "hopes" people won't notice he is continuing to do the things he ran against, claiming he will "change" these things. Some people consider this "leadership". He has proven to be the equal of bush. Poor policy decisions, but a better speaker/reader of speeches.


The bad thing grumpy is I agree with some of what you said just now. If that is so why put blame where it belongs instead of trying to fight and criticize and make up things.


Re: "If that is so why put blame where it belongs instead of trying to fight and criticize and make up things."

Putting blame is what adults or leaders do. Trying to fight and make things up is what grade school children tend to do. Bad/failing policies is what failed leaders do.