Obama to end mass collection of U.S. phone data


U.S. President Barack Obama talks at the National Defense University in WashingtonPresident Barack Obama plans to call for an end to the government’s mass collection of American phone data and restructure the program so the data is held outside the government, according to a senior administration official.

Mr. Obama will also require a judge’s order for government searches of this data, according to the official.

Mr. Obama will ask the attorney general, intelligence leaders and Congress to devise a new way to house the data outside the government, reporting to him before the program is up for renewal on March 28.

The new details come ahead of Mr. Obama’s planned address Friday on government surveillance– seen as a key step in his re-examination of post-Sept. 11 security practices. The White House says the re-examination is designed to restructure terrorism policies and shore up their credibility before he leaves office. Mr. Obama’s speech is scheduled for 11 a.m. EST.

Mr. Obama, in a highly anticipated speech that follows a six-month review of U.S. spying programs, is also expected to extend privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens and announce measures to continuously evaluate sensitive surveillance, particularly involving foreign leaders, people familiar with the plan say.

The president’s speech, to be delivered at the Justice Department, caps a process that was similar to the one he undertook on other controversial, post-Sept. 11 issues, such as the use of armed drones and closing the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The next policy to come under similar review is the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, a senior administration official said, referring to the congressional act that provided the basis of a campaign widely known as the “war on terror.”

Mr. Obama has said his goal is to revise and eventually repeal the authorization, the primary legal justification for military operations against al Qaeda around the world, including in Afghanistan, but also Somalia and Yemen.

Mr. Obama’s decisions on surveillance are expected to attempt to strike a midpoint between the demands of civil libertarians and spy chiefs.

In many ways, his speech will underscore how vexing surveillance issues are for any president, and how much Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, agonizes over choices about national security and personal privacy.

As with the other controversial issues he has attempted to tackle—namely, drones and Guantanamo—he isn’t expected to satisfy either side of the debate.

“It’s a fool’s errand to believe you can simultaneously satisfy civil-liberties groups and the intelligence community,” said Steve Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at American University who has followed the surveillance debate closely and has been invited to outreach meetings at the NSA. “The president is caught between these constituencies that are not going to agree with each other,” he added. “He’s also caught between his own internal misgivings.”

Mr. Obama will be trying to reach a range of audiences Friday, including lawmakers, intelligence officers, foreign leaders, civil-liberties advocates, technology companies and the broader American public. Each has a major stake in how Mr. Obama—and later, Congress—carve out the new rules of the road for U.S. surveillance.

Lawmakers in both parties are deeply divided over whether surveillance operations should be significantly curtailed. Some of Mr. Obama’s announcements Friday will put him at odds with his own Democratic Party, as well as his traditional Republican adversaries.

Officers at the NSA and other spy agencies are worried that the president won’t sufficiently take responsibility for the surveillance programs they believe they have executed on his behalf.

Foreign leaders are awaiting reassurances that the U.S. isn’t snooping into their private affairs on a regular basis and are seeking limits on the NSA’s reach. Privacy advocates are seeking a major reining in of surveillance in the U.S., particularly of American phone data.

Technology companies also want him to reassure an international audience of customers who are now wary of American technology and telecom products.

Aside from the outcry from foreign leaders, the pushback from civil libertarians and technology companies has been among the most difficult for Mr. Obama to contend with.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was disappointed in the direction Mr. Obama appeared to be going, which he sees as largely cosmetic change.

“It seems like the administration is responding to political pressure and public relations rather than real policy issues,” he said. “The idea that we would provide greater privacy rights to foreigners rather than stop the bulk-data collection of Americans’ data is perplexing.”

Mr. Obama had long intended to review U.S. surveillance practices, administration officials said, but the process was hastened by leaks of classified information by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who is now a fugitive living in Moscow.

In May, the president delivered a speech on U.S. drone policy that followed a nearly yearlong review, declaring, “This war, like all wars, must end.”

In June, the disclosures began. By August, as Mr. Snowden’s leaks continued, Mr. Obama pressed for a quick and thorough look at the surveillance programs, officials said, and decided to announce proposed overhauls in hopes of calming the firestorm.

The president’s handpicked review panel recommended that phone data be stored someplace other than with the NSA, and said investigators should be required to get a judge’s order to do a search of that data.

The location of the phone data has come under intense debate. Telecommunications companies and the NSA say relocation will be technically difficult. And many privacy advocates don’t think changing the location of the data will enhance privacy protections.

Requiring a judge’s order for searches, however, would appeal to many privacy advocates, but intelligence leaders say such a change is needless, cumbersome and will slow investigations.

Separately, Mr. Obama is expected to tweak the process for issuing controversial “national security letters” to obtain business data by allowing recipients to disclose the receipt of the letter after five years. Such letters are currently issued without a judge’s order, and recipients are forbidden to acknowledge receiving one.

The president is also expected to detail how he envisions the establishment of a privacy advocate who would argue before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court now approves surveillance requests based only on arguments from the government’s perspective.

Mr. Obama proposed such a change himself in August, but the proposal became more controversial this week when a former judge on the court detailed the judiciary’s concerns about how such a position would work in practice, saying it was “unnecessary” and could be “counterproductive,” depending on how the position was structured.