WASHINGTON, DC – In response to growing criticism about the U.S. government’s surveillance program, mostly as it affects private citizens, President Obama promised reforms, particularly the ending of massive government storage of private phone records, he said in a speech to the Justice Department on Jan. 17.
“I am ordering a transition that will end the…bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata,” the president said.
Despite calling for this sweeping transformation, Obama reiterated that the government does not monitor the names of private citizens making phonecalls, or the content of the phonecalls. “Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and length of calls, metadata that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization,” he said.
Nonetheless, he acknowledged that “critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future. They’re also right to point out that although the telephone bulk collection program was subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and has been reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, it has never been subject to vigorous public debate. For all these reasons, I believe we need a new approach.”
Obama also discussed the practice of monitoring the conversations of ally nations’ leaders and other officials. The new presidential directive that I’ve issued today will clearly prescribe what we do and do not do when it comes to our overseas surveillance,” he said.
“To begin with, the directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary folks.
“I’ve also made it clear that the United States does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation or religious beliefs. We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies or U.S. commercial sectors.
“And in terms of our bulk collection of signals intelligence, U.S. intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific security requirements: counterintelligence; counterterrorism; counterproliferation; cybersecurity; force protection for our troops and our allies; and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion.
“Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I’ve made clear to the intelligence community 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.”
Obama pointed out that the National Security Agency was originated during the Truman Administration, and that its work remains vital to America’s national security, even as the threats have radically changed from the days of the Cold War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of terrorism, intelligence agencies have focused on a very different type of danger. Accordingly, he added: Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective. But heads of state and government with whom we work closely and on whose cooperation we depend should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners, and the changes I’ve ordered do just that.”
The president also emphasized that the United States, because of its very reputation throughout the world, is by default held to a higher standard than any other nation. “No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account.
“But let’s remember, we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity. As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual empowerment, not government control. Having faced down the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism and communism, the world expects us to stand up for the principle that every person has the right to think and write and form relationships freely, because individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress.
“Those values make us who we are.”