Obama ‘Confident’ NSA Proposal Will Address Privacy Concerns

The president, before an international audience, also attempted to ease fears that the U.S. is indiscriminately spying on its allies.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
March 25, 2014, 8:41 a.m.

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Pres­id­ent Obama on Tues­day said he is sup­port­ive of a “work­able” pro­pos­al from his ad­min­is­tra­tion that would ef­fect­ively end the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s meth­od of ac­quir­ing bulk re­cords of Amer­ic­ans’ phone data.

“Over­all I’m con­fid­ent that it al­lows us to do what is ne­ces­sary in or­der to deal with the dangers of a ne­far­i­ous at­tack and ad­dresses the dangers that people have raised,” the pres­id­ent said dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in The Hag­ue. “I’m look­ing for­ward to work­ing with Con­gress to make sure we go ahead and pass the en­abling le­gis­la­tion quickly so that we can get on with the busi­ness of ef­fect­ive law en­force­ment.”

The com­ments are the pres­id­ent’s first after The New York Times re­por­ted late Monday that Obama would ac­cept a pro­pos­al from his ad­min­is­tra­tion to al­low the vast data­base of phone re­cords to stay in the hands of phone com­pan­ies. The switch from cur­rent pro­tocol would al­low NSA agents to ac­cess data on a tar­get only after ob­tain­ing an or­der from the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have con­firmed the de­tails of the pro­pos­al, which they say would need to be ap­proved by Con­gress. Un­til then, the sur­veil­lance pro­gram will be re­newed every 90 days in its cur­rent it­er­a­tion.

Obama’s re­marks on the NSA pro­pos­al came dur­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit be­fore an over­seas audi­ence, a fact that was not lost on the pres­id­ent. He at­temp­ted to as­suage con­cerns that the U.S. is spy­ing on for­eign cit­izens and lead­ers not sus­pec­ted of any wrong­do­ing.

“We are go­ing to treat the pri­vacy con­cerns of non-U.S. per­sons as ser­i­ously as we are the con­straints that already ex­ist by law on U.S. per­sons,” Obama said. “We are do­ing that not be­cause we are bound by in­ter­na­tion­al law, but be­cause ul­ti­mately it is the right thing to do.”

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion — and sev­er­al mem­bers of Con­gress — have signaled no in­ten­tion to end a pro­gram known as PRISM, which col­lects In­ter­net data from over­seas tar­gets. Even though some of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity’s staunchest de­fend­ers in Con­gress — namely, Reps. Mike Ro­gers, the Re­pub­lic­an chair­man of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, and Dutch Rup­pers­ber­ger, the pan­el’s top Demo­crat, as well as Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein — have re­cently shown a will­ing­ness to com­prom­ise on do­mest­ic phone-re­cords col­lec­tion, they have not yet em­braced calls for re­form to for­eign in­tel­li­gence sur­veil­lance.

On Tues­day, Ro­gers and Rup­pers­ber­ger un­veiled a bill that would put the phone data­base in­to the hands of private phone com­pan­ies and al­low for a court re­view of each or­der. It also in­cludes no data-re­ten­tion man­date.

The Pri­vacy and Civil Liber­ties Board, an ex­ec­ut­ive body tasked with re­view­ing the NSA’s pro­grams, is re­view­ing the leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion for PRISM and ex­pects to is­sue a re­com­mend­a­tion in May or June.

Obama, in re­sponse to a ques­tion from a Dutch journ­al­ist about the im­pact that NSA spy­ing has had on U.S. for­eign re­la­tions, took a swipe at the way de­tails of the gov­ern­ment spy­ing have come to light.

“Some of the re­port­ing here in Europe as well as the United States, frankly, has been pretty sen­sa­tion­al­ized,” Obama said. But he ad­ded, “The fears about our pri­vacy in this age of the In­ter­net and big data are jus­ti­fied “¦ if you are just an or­din­ary cit­izen, in any of these coun­tries, that your pri­vacy, in fact, is not be­ing in­vaded.”

Obama did not men­tion former NSA con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden — whose leaks last June ig­nited a furi­ous pub­lic dis­cus­sion over the prop­er role of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance — by name. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion has at­temp­ted to vil­i­fy Snowden’s ac­tions.

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