President Obama in his speech laying out reforms to the nation's surveillance programs on Friday will announce changes to the National Security Agency's phone metadata program “as it currently exists,” according to a senior administration official.
Obama plans to continue the so-called “215 program” because it “addresses capabilities that allow us to counter terrorism,” the official said, but believes “we can and should be able to preserve those capabilities while addressing the privacy and civil liberties concerns that are raised by the government holding this meta-data.”
While the NSA will continue to collect and store the phone metadata and maintain access to it, the Obama administration will “take steps to modify the program” so that a judicial finding is required before the NSA can seek information from the database.
The administration official did not elaborate on the steps Obama will take, saying only that the president has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to report back to him before the program comes up for re-authorization on March 28th on “how we can preserve the necessary capabilities of the program, without the government holding the meta-data.”
Obama also will consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views.
The president has faced mounting pressure from civil libertarians and members of both parties to stop the sweeping phone-data collection program since NSA leaker Edward Snowden first revealed details about the scope of the government's surveillance last year.
Obama has defended the NSA’s surveillance, arguing that it has thwarted terror attacks and saved lives, and said that any reforms should focus on restoring the public’s trust in the agency.
But senators on both sides of the aisle have pressed Obama to stop the phone metadata collection and overhaul other aspects of the NSA's spying programs.
An outside review group set up by the president called for 46 reforms to the government’s surveillance practices, including forcing the NSA to stop storing records on phone calls.
Obama's proposal appears to fall short of that demand – at least for now – because it will allow the phone-record collection to continue. Still, it is a stronger action than most NSA critics expected. Reports ahead of the president's Friday announcement suggested Obama would establish a civil-liberties advocate on the secret court that grants surveillance warrants and end the practice of spying on international leaders phone calls while punting other potential changes to Congress to deliberate.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of Obama's harshest critics over the NSA's surveillance, said Thursday night he hoped to see major changes to the phone metadata collection program.
“What I hope the president will pick up on is the finding of his independent experts,” he told the Washington Examiner. “These are people with strong national security credentials and no shrinking violets and they said point blank with respect to the collection of phone records on millions of millions of Americans … [that] it wasn't necessary to do that to protect our country against terrorism.”
Even when other intelligence sources have been exhausted in dealing with a suspected terrorist plot, Wyden said the review panel found that the phone metadata collection “wasn't particularly effective because they don't have access to all the phone records.”
The president, he said, is right in calling for stronger Congressional oversight of the nations spying practices, but for that to work, the leaders of the intelligence committees and other relevant panels need to “be straight to the [rest of the] Congress again. And again that has not been the case.”
“They've said one thing in private and another thing in public,” he said.
Even before Snowden revealed the government's sweeping phone- and internet-data collection, Wyden was privately pressing the administration for information about the programs. He caused a stir last year when he questioned Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on whether the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Clapper at the time failed to reveal the classified surveillance programs, with critics accusing the intelligence chief of directly lying to lawmakers.
“No sir,” he said, before adding, “not wittingly.”
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who has authored NSA reform legislation with Wyden and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he has repeatedly asked Obama to make changes to the phone-data collection program.
“The case I continue to make to the White House and the president personally is that 215 as it's been implemented does not provide uniquely valuable intelligence and it's undercut the public's trust in government responsibility for protecting our privacy,” he said Thursday evening.
Blumenthal said he was encouraged that Obama is going to set up a privacy advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a key change he has pushed for months.
“I'm particularly looking forward to his proposals on the constitutional advocate, which I have proposed and worked to achieve,” he said.
This story was published at 7:34 a.m. and has been updated.