WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is ordering changes to spy programs that sweep up Americans' phone records and asked legal and intelligence officials to consider changes to programs that store email and Internet data from around the world, seven months after former NSA analyst Edward Snowden began divulging secret methods of the National Security Agency.
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 National Security Agency 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.
On Friday, Obama said at a time of rapidly changing technology the United States must ensure that privacy and civil liberties are still protected. He defended the work of the U.S. spying apparatus as necessary to protect Americans and international allies, however, and left the programs mostly intact, with new 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, which can take quite some time. 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 government to begin storing the records elsewhere, 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 on someone.
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 in 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.
Q: What about spying on world leaders?
A: In response to criticism from around the globe, 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 who can 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 when the court is dealing with a new issue. Congress would have to vote to make this happen, however.
Obama is asking a senior White House adviser, John Podesta, to lead a broad review of the use of "big data," with input from the technology companies and privacy experts.
Other changes include a plan to reveal a little more information, eventually, about the secret national security letters that the government issues to banks, phone companies and others to demand information about their customers.
Q: Will the changes satisfy critics of the programs?
A: No. Many civil liberties and privacy advocates 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 called the plan a good first step but said more must be done.
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 NSA programs 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 phone collection program fell only a few votes shy of passing the House.
The Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees have all endorsed the bulk collection of telephone records as a valuable tool in terrorism investigations.
Q: Will Obama's changes make it harder to track terrorists?
Intelligence agency leaders have argued that their sweeping programs help stop terrorists.
The president's own review board cast doubt on that, in a report recommending that the NSA's routine collection of millions of phone records come to an end.
The review said the information gleaned from the phone data 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 somewhat.
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 Friday. "I will say that our nation's defense 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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