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.