WASHINGTON — President Obama, acknowledging that high-tech surveillance threatens civil liberties, proposed significant changes Friday to the way the government collects and uses telephone records but left in place many other pillars of the nation’s intelligence programs.
Responding to the clamor over sensational disclosures about the National Security Agency’s spying practices, Obama said he would seek to restrict the ability of agencies to gain access to phone records and would seek to ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.
But in a speech at the Justice Department that seemed more calculated to reassure audiences at home and abroad than to force radical change, Obama defended the need for the broad surveillance net assembled by the NSA. And he turned to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves to work out the details of any changes.
“America’s capabilities are unique,” Obama said. “And the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”
Invoking lofty principles and then going into a highly technical discussion of the NSA’s procedures, Obama said he would require prior court approval each time an agency analyst wants access to calling records, except in emergencies. He also said he had forbidden eavesdropping on the leaders of allied countries, after the disclosure of such activities ignited a diplomatic firestorm with Germany, Brazil, and other countries.
The full extent of that surveillance has not been publicly acknowledged, but a senior administration official said the surveillance of dozens of foreign leaders has ended. But the president said there was no evidence the NSA had abused its power, and said that many of its practices were necessary to protect Americans from a host of threats since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Obama’s carefully calibrated proposals offered little comfort to civil-liberties advocates hoping for a thorough overhaul of the NSA’s practices.
For example, Obama did not accept one of the most far-reaching recommendations of his own advisory panel on surveillance practices: requiring court approval for national security letters, a kind of subpoena allowing the FBI to obtain information about people from their banks, cellphone providers, and other companies.
With the president setting in motion multiple internal administration reviews and asking Congress to take up some of the most difficult issues, the debate about surveillance practices probably will continue unabated, eight months after it was touched off by the disclosure of classified information by a former NSA contractor, Edward J. Snowden.
Obama’s stated intent to get the government out of the business of warehousing Americans’ calling data in bulk may prove easier said than done. The phone companies have resisted taking on that role.
Obama gave Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. 60 days to return with recommendations.
Civil-liberties groups and lawmakers who have been critical of the NSA’s practices appeared divided on Obama’s proposal on bulk phone records.
Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — three Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee who have been outspoken critics of government surveillance — jointly called Obama’s embrace of that goal “a major milestone,” although they said they would continue to push for other reforms.
Senator Edward Markey said he is pleased with the initial steps but there is much more to be done. The Massachusetts Democrat, a cofounder of the Bi-Partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, said phone companies shouldn’t have to keep more information than they need for business and he will introduce legislation to develop new data retention rules.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was also skeptical: “The bulk collection and retention of data in government warehouses, government facilities, seems to still be an open question.”
For NSA analysts, Obama’s changes will have two immediate effects. They will be able to scrutinize calls that are only two steps removed from a number associated with a suspected terrorist, rather than three.
And when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court signs off on new procedures, the analysts will have to convince a judge there is reason to scrutinize callers linked to a number.