WASHINGTON — President Obama will issue new guidelines on Friday to curtail government surveillance, but will not embrace the most far-reaching proposals of his own advisers and will ask Congress to decide some of the toughest issues, according to people briefed on his thinking.
Obama plans to increase limits on access to bulk telephone data, call for privacy safeguards for foreigners, and propose creation of a public advocate to represent privacy concerns at a secret intelligence court. But he will not endorse leaving bulk data in the custody of telecommunications firms nor will he require court permission for all so-called national security letters seeking business records.
The emerging approach, described by current and former government officials who insisted on anonymity in advance of Obama’s widely anticipated speech, suggested a president trying to straddle a difficult line that will placate civil liberties advocates without a backlash from national security agencies.
The result seems to be a speech that leaves in place many current programs, but embraces the spirit of reform and keeps the door open to further changes later.
The decision to provide additional privacy protections for non-Americans or residents, for instance, largely codifies existing practices but will be followed by a 180-day study by the director of national intelligence about whether to go further. Likewise, instead of taking the storage of bulk data out of government hands, as recommended by a review panel he appointed, Obama will leave it in place for now and ask lawmakers to weigh in.
The blend of decisions, to be outlined in a speech at the Justice Department and in a presidential guidelines memorandum, will be Obama’s highest- profile response to the disclosures about the National Security Agency made in recent months by Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor who has fled to Russia.
But as intelligence officials have sorted through Obama’s evolving position, they have been divided about how significant his adjustments will be. Some officials complained that the changes will add layers of cumbersome procedure that will hinder the hunt for potential terrorists, while others expressed relief that Obama is not going further and confidence that they could still work within the new guidelines without sacrificing much.
“Is it cosmetic or is there a real thumb on the scale in a different direction?” asked one former government official who worked on intelligence issues. “That’s the question.”The White House said the president’s review is incomplete and would not comment Tuesday.
The developments came as the nation’s judiciary waded into the highly charged debate. In a letter made public on Tuesday, a judge designated by Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to express the views of the judicial branch warned that some changes under consideration would have a negative “operational impact” on a secret foreign intelligence court.