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Obama announces NSA programs overhaul

President Barack Obama announced as expected on Friday a major overhaul to some of the National Security Agency’s most disputed surveillance operations seven months after they was first exposed, reining in the metadata collection program among others.

Effective immediately, the president said, NSA officials must  obtain court permission in order to access the government’s  archive of telephone metadata — a trove of intelligence that has  been regularly collected by the government through a program that  its proponents say is a legally sound and crucial  counterterrorism tool justified under Section 215 of the United  States Patriot Act.

Evidence of that program was exposed last June through classified  documents disclosed to the media by former NSA contractor   Edward Snowden and  spurred an immediate and ongoing international discussion that  cumulated with the president’s endorsement of reform during a  Friday morning speech inside the Justice Department building in  downtown Washington, DC.

“I believe we need a new approach,” Mr. Obama said.   “I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the  Section 215 bulk metadata collection program as it currently  exists, and establishes a mechanism that preserves the  capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk  metadata.”

Exactly who will be in charge of holding onto the phone records  pertaining to millions of Americans has yet to be decided,  however, and Mr. Obama says he’s tasked United States Attorney  General Eric Holder, the intelligence community and Congress with  finding a solution.

Among the first of top-secret documents leaked by former NSA  contractor Edward Snowden since June is evidence that revealed  the US government has regularly   compelled the nation’s telecommunication companies for  so-called metadata, in turn receiving on routine basis the  primitive details about each and every phone call dialed. But  while Mr. Obama and his administration has largely defended the  program up to and during Friday’s speech, critics have condemned  that program and others like it exposed by Mr. Snowden and have  accused the government of violating the civil liberties and  rights to privacy of not just Americans, but millions around the  globe.

The president said during his address that he wouldn’t “dwell  on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations,” citing the  ongoing investigation into the leaks, but insisted that when  individuals who oppose government policy take it upon themselves  to publically disclose classified information as the former  contractor did, then the US government “will not be able to  keep our people safe or conduct foreign policy.” WikiLeaks  founder Julian Assange, an ally of Snowden, told CNN that the  leaker will respond to the new NSA reforms next week.

Other documents disclosed by Mr. Snowden since June have revealed  NSA programs that target the communications of foreign  persons, including average citizens and allied leaders alike.  As expected,  Obama announced his intent to reform some of those operations  during Friday’s address as well.

Revelations that the NSA had tapped the personal phones of  foreign leaders like German Chancellor Angela  Merkel caused outrage around the world last year, but on  Friday’s speech Mr. Obama said that the US is the “world’s  only superpower” and must continue to conduct operations  allies are not able to accomplish on their own.

We will not apologize simply because our services may be  more effective,” the president said, “but heads of state  and governments with whom we work closely . . . should feel  confident that we are treating them as real partners.”

The US government “will continue to gather information about  the intentions” of foreign governments, the president said.  On the contrary, though, he also promised the NSA “will not  monitor the communications of heads of state” atop the ranks  of allied partners unless there are compelling national security  purposes at stake. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence  Surveillance Act (FISA) will be subjected to new reform as well,  he said, allowing the government to intercept the communications  of overseas targets with important information without putting as  many Americans and foreign persons incidentally targeted under  the looking glass.


More of the president’s new plans involve activity at home,  however, including reformations meant to address concerns with  how the government collects an array of intelligence gathering  operations that may at times turn up the details pertaining to US  persons.

Some of the issues touched upon by Mr. Obama during Friday’s  address are included in a presidential policy directive published  earlier that morning:

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In announcing changes to metadata program carried out through  Sec. 215, Mr. Obama said, “I believe critics are right to  point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program  could be used to yield more information about our private lives  and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in  the future.” His administration will begin immediately  working towards transferring possession of those records away  from the NSA, the president added, while at the same time  significantly cutting down the number of persons whose  information is collected.

Effective immediately,” he added, “we will only  pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number  associated with a terrorist association.” Until now the US  government has given itself the authority to investigate the  conduct of people separated by three steps, or “hops,” from a  targeted number. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union  claimed that a person with 40 contacts in their mobile phone  address book could be connected to roughly 2.5 million others  using the “three hops” rule.

Last month, a five-person review group handpicked by Pres. Obama  after the dawn of the Snowden leaks released their findings with  regards to how they believe the federal government should reform  the NSA’s programs. Although the president heeded only a fraction  of those, according to promises made during Friday’s address, he  did also endorse significant changes to other surveillance  programs that have struck a chord among civil libertarians.

National Security Letters, or NSLs, for instance, can be sent by  federal agents to private businesses in order to compel them to  provide specific information about certain customers without that  targeted person ever being told they are under investigation.   “We can and should be more transparent as to how the  government uses this authority,” the president said from the  DoJ headquarters, and in an effort to do as much he has directed  Attorney General Holder to amend how NSLs are currently used.

Mr. Obama also announced that he’s asked Congress to establish a  panel of advocate from outside of government to provide an  independent voice before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance  Court, or FISC, which authorizes in secret wiretaps and similar  spy operations under what critics call little-to-no oversight.


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