Updated at 11:15 am and throughout the speech to Noon EST
President Barack Obama today is attempting to frame the matter of secret government surveillance in the context of a nation’s long history of self-survival in a dangerous world.
Once it was the British landing at Boston that required surveillance, Obama said today in a speech at the Justice Department in Washington. Today it is networks of terrorism independent of any nationalities.
Nevertheless, in the struggle against Communism, he noted, the very liberties that the U.S. has fought to preserve could not be sacrificed in the interest of national security.
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“The horror of Sept. 11 brought all of these issues to the fore,” Obama said in a 43-minute speech. “We were shaken by the signs we had missed leading up to the attacks.”
“We demanded that our intelligence community improve its capabilities,” the president said.
And improve, they did.
The complexity and reach of the National Security Agency’s post-9/11 global surveillance has been unveiled in dramatic public fashion since last year’s revelations by a disaffected security analyst. That surveillance has come ashore in the instances of suspects abroad communicating with people in the U.S. The administration maintains that it has respected a certain line, that it is not listening to Americans’ phone calls or reading their emails. Still, the details exposed about the NSA’s surveillance have alarmed average Americans and the telecommunications and Internet companies that serve them.
The risk of lost liberties suddenly has become “more pronounced,” said Obama, who noted that, as a senator from Illinois, he was critical of practices exposed during the previous administration of President George W. Bush, including the use of warrantless wiretaps.
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The most controversial element of American surveillance that has become public, the president said, is the collection of “metadata,” massive databases of telephone or Internet traffic.
The program emanated from something discovered after 9/11 — a missed telephone call — he said.
“The program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of average Americans,” he said, though the “consolidation of phone records that the companies already maintain for business purposes” can provide the government critical resources in the prevention of terrorism.
While the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has overseen the bulk collection of data, he said, it has never been subject to public debate.
He is ordering the end of the bulk-collection program as it currently exists, continuing the assessment of data without the government holding the information. This will require either the telecommunications and Internet companies “or a third party” to hold the records, he said.
This has the immediate ring of something that will prove devilish in the details.
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Today, Obama is announcing “concrete reforms” that he will enact administratively or through legislative action.
He is ordering a strengthened review of intelligence priorities and targets. He is promising “greater transparency” in surveillance activities. This includes declassification of rulings by the secret FISA court that oversees government agencies’ surveillance.
He is calling on Congress to create a panel of advocates from outside government to provide a significant voice in these decisions.
All of this, he suggested, should give Americans “comfort” that their rights are being “better protected.”
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The legal safeguards that protect Americans against unwarranted surveillance don’t apply to people overseas, the president said.
“America’s capabilities are unique… There are fewer and fewer technical restraints on what we can do. That, he said, places “obligations” on us for a discussion about “what we should do.”
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The president is stepping forward today on an issue that has generated odd political alliances since Edward Snowden, the former national security contractor, stole piles of secret information about the NSA surveillance of telephone and Internet traffic and got it published worldwide.
Snowden found asylum in Russia while facing indictment in the U.S. for espionage and theft — he remains there, in some peoples’ minds a heroic whistleblower, in others’ a villain who violated his security clearance.
Obama said today that he would not get into the question of Snowden’s own motives or guilt.
Snowden’s leaks were made in a “sensational” way that “has often shed more heat than light” and, the president said, and they have revealed methods to adversaries that may impair U.S. operations “in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”
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“This effort will not be completed overnight,” he said. “But I want the American people to know that the work has begun.”
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While so many issues in Washington have broken along red-state and blue-state lines, the question of American personal privacy rights involved in the NSA surveillance controversy has melded a bipartisan alliance: Democratic liberals and Republican libertarians.
“This is an unusual political alignment — it’s conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats who have a lot in common on this issue, and they’re the ones who are most worried about civil liberties,” says Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Washington-based Pew Research Center “At a time of polarized politics, you do see this common ground… Both parties are divided almost 50-50 on that civil liberties versus terrorism questions.”
“We’ve been tracking a question that pits civil liberties versus protecting against terrorism since 9/11, and we’ve consistently had majorities saying, `No, protect the country,” Doherty said in an interview aired on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” today, “And now, for the first time you see pluralities at least saying, `No, it’s more important to protect civil liberties.”’
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The president closed today with an assurance that the U.S. will no longer monitor the communications of allied foreign leaders, as it was found to have done with those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He also is asking his senior counsel, John Podesta, to lead “a comprehensive review” of “big data” and privacy.
Podesta served as a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
That was before 9/11, before any talk of “metadata.”
“When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain who we are,” Obama said, in a world changing “at dizzying speed.”
“Technology is remaking what is possible,” he said, noting that “more work will be needed in the future.”
“One thing I am certain of: This debate will make us stronger,” he said, and in this era of change the U.S. “will have to lead.”
“We are held to a different standard,” he said, as a nation that has fought for personal liberty — and one that “invented the Internet.”
“The world expects us to stand up to the principal… of individual freedom,” Obama said in closing.