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

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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