(CNN) — President Barack Obama on Friday defended the the “vital role” that intelligence-gathering plays in the nation’s security, as he nonetheless announced changes aimed at increasing transparency and protecting privacy and civil liberties.
He illustrated the nexus of intelligence and security, recalling events in American history going back to Paul Revere’s famous ride.
Obama said that “a variety of factors have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties,” citing technological advances that allow supercomputers to gather huge amounts of digital data as a reason for needing to reform U.S. surveillance programs.
The reforms that Obama announced will end the controversial National Security Agency telephone bulk collection program as it currently exists, officials said.
Intelligence analysts will now need court approval to go into phone records routinely stored by the NSA, a change resulting from concerns raised by classified leaks last year by former agency contractor Edward Snowden that revealed the government’s collection of phone “metadata.”
No evidence of abuse has been found involving surveillance programs, but changes are needed in response to legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised, Obama said.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told CNN on Friday that “we heard a lot of lies” in President Barack Obama’s speech announcing government surveillance reforms.
Assange disputed Obama’s contention that the National Security Agency has never abused its authority and dismissed the President’s assurances that the United States would not snoop on foreign leaders.
“You don’t spy on them, you just spy on everyone else they talk to,” Assange said.
The President remained critical of Snowden, who is now living under asylum in Russia following his series of leaks that began last June and transformed the debate on national security surveillance in the post 9/11 era.
“Our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” Obama said. “If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”
Assange told CNN that Snowden would respond — possibly early next week — to Obama’s announced U.S. surveillance reforms.
“I’m not sure if he’s watching, but he’s following the matter quite closely,” Assange said.
Obama also called on Congress to authorize establishment of a new panel of outside advocates to participate in “significant cases” before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that handles intelligence collection issues.
He also said that the United States “is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security” and added that “unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”
The scope of phone and e-mail snooping by NSA revealed by Snowden triggered outrage from civil libertarians and prompted key members of Congress from both parties to weigh changes in national security law.
Nothing in his administration’s initial review of U.S. intelligence operations and “nothing that I have learned since indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” Obama said.
While the bulk telephone data remains with the NSA for now, Obama wants those records moved out of government hands, though it is uncertain where, a senior administration official said.
Changes imposed by the President will permanently place his signature on the intelligence initiative and help define his legacy as a chief executive who promised a more open and transparent government when he entered the White House five years ago.
NSA domestic and international phone and e-mail surveillance is considered some of the most widespread intelligence gathering performed by the U.S. government.
The agency and its supporters believe data collection authority is crucial to discovering potential terrorists who haven’t yet come to the attention of national security officials.
But critics say it violates privacy rights of Americans whose data is collected even though there is no suspicion that they pose a security threat.
Federal courts are divided on NSA telephone data collection. One judge in Washington ruled preliminarily in December that it was probably unconstitutional on privacy grounds. A second judge ruling in another case in New York subsequently found it lawful.
The top-secret the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the legal aspects of surveillance, earlier this month reauthorized the program for another three months.
The program is covered under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and has been authorized 36 times over the past seven years.
In summary, here’s what it all meant:
1. The public will get a voice before the secret intelligence court — sort of
The way things work now at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the government asks a judge in secret for permission to collect, say, phone records. No one gets to argue the other side.
Obama said he wants to open the court’s doors to advocates from outside the government who can “provide an independent voice in significant cases.”
The idea is to make sure outside voices have a say — voices that might not always buy into the intelligence community’s arguments, but who knows what that panel will end up looking like.
2. New limits on telephone records
If you’ve been paying attention the last few months, you know the National Security Agency has been slurping up details on millions of phone calls placed in the United States. The agency isn’t recording the actual conversation – they’re after stuff like the phone numbers involved and the time and length of each call.
That won’t end, exactly, but Obama says big changes are coming. First, fewer calls will be cataloged. And analysts will now have to get a judge’s approval to dip into the records. Later, the government will stop collecting and storing those records. Where they’ll go is still up in the air, though.
3. Super-secret “we want your stuff” letters are changing
Remember the movie, “Fight Club?” Remember the line, “First rule of fight club is you do not talk about Fight Club?” Well, the government has something like that called the National Security Letter program. It requires tech companies to cough up info about suspected terrorists and others without so much as a peep.
Obama wants to change it so those letters don’t always stay secret. He also wants to give tech companies more latitude to reveal information about what the government asks for. He didn’t say exactly what they’ll be able to reveal, but at least maybe they’ll be able to finally acknowledge “Security Club.”
4. People living outside the U.S. get some love, too
Revelations sparked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks didn’t just rile up Americans. We learned the United States had been monitoring leaders of some of its allies, such as Germany. The U.S. also doesn’t extend the kind of privacy protections to your everyday Italian or Peruvian living outside the United States.
So Obama says the U.S. will take what he calls the “unprecedented step” of developing some privacy safeguards for citizens of other nations living abroad. That might include limits on how long the U.S. keeps personal information and taking steps to make sure it’s used only in very limited circumstances.