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Obama unveils new limits on U.S. spying while defending surveillance operations

January 17, 2014 at 12:44 PM EDT
President Obama called for several changes to U.S. spying practices including ending the NSA's storage of bulk phone metadata. Kwame Holman reports on the president's reforms and Hari Sreenivasan gets reaction from Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies and John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now we look in-depth at the president’s surveillance speech today at the Justice Department.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president presented a measured defense of U.S. surveillance, and he largely left the operations intact, citing a presidential advisory panel.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale, not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the same time, Mr. Obama sought to reassure the public by calling for several changes.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chief among those reforms, the National Security Agency would continue it’s sweeping collection of phone call information, or metadata, but it would no longer store the data.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata.

KWAME HOLMAN: A review panel has recommended the NSA shift control of the phone data to phone companies or to a third party, but the companies are resisting.

The president said he’s giving Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence community 60 days to study the options. He further said he wants to inject new perspectives into the workings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that oversees terrorism investigations.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m also calling on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama’s speech was intended first and foremost to address Americans’ concerns about surveillance and individual privacy. But it also was directed at global audiences, who have joined in the debate and criticism on the scope and targeting of U.S. surveillance.

In October, the world learned the U.S. has monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls and those of other allied leaders.

Today, the president banned such eavesdropping.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And the leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to know what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance.

KWAME HOLMAN: He also noted, however, that leaders some of the countries who’ve criticized American intelligence-gathering are relying on the data themselves to protect their own people. And he didn’t hide his disapproval of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor whose leaks exposed U.S. surveillance efforts to the world.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The sensational way in which these disclosures had come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in way that we may not fully understand for years to come.

KWAME HOLMAN: After the speech, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman the Judiciary Committee, voiced support.

He said in a statement: “I commend the president for taking important steps to maintain our national security, while protecting privacy rights and civil liberties, both here and abroad.”

Some civil liberties advocates said the reforms don’t go nearly far enough. But, in his own statement, Republican House Speaker John Boehner warned the opposite may be true.

He said: “When considering any reforms, however, keeping Americans safe must remain our top priority. When lives are at stake, the president must now allow politics to cloud his judgment.”

That sets the stage for congressional debate and action already on tap for this year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So did the president rein in the NSA enough, too much, or perhaps is it too early to tell?

We got two views.

John McLaughlin was the CIA deputy director and then acting director during the George W. Bush administration. He now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And Kate Martin is the director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties advocacy group.

So, Mr. McLaughlin, I want to start with you first. First, your reactions on today’s speech.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, former acting CIA director: Well, I think the president did a very good job of talking about the NSA in the context of American intelligence and explaining to the American people why what they do is important.

I think he also made an important statement that needed to be made by a senior official in telling the American public directly from the president that the NSA doesn’t read all of your e-mail, the NSA doesn’t listen to all of your phone calls, because that — that perception is alive out there.

So I think he did a good job on those scores. Where I would comment, though, is that, as I listened the speech, I think the phrase or two that kept coming to my mind is the devil is very much in the details here. And we will have to wait and see whether the major changes that he proposed on the metadata collection program and particularly also on the insertion of privacy advocates into the judicial process, whether these ultimately help, hurt or make no difference whatsoever in the effectiveness of our intelligence collection.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Kate Martin, your initial thoughts?

KATE MARTIN, Center for National Security Studies: Well, I thought that he made two very significant improvements to the current system, which I think in the long run will help our intelligence, as well as our civil liberties.

And that was to recognize the serious risks involved in government collection of bulk data on Americans and announce that, at least on the 215 program, that that would be ended, and, secondly, to recognize the importance of having a judicial order before the NSA asks for information on Americans.

And the government, you know, for the last 25 years has taken the position that the government doesn’t need a judicial order to get third-party records like these telephone records. And now this president has recognized that the technological changes of the last 20 years have increased both the intelligence capabilities but the risks of government intelligence activities, and moved to address both of those.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. McLaughlin, will this change to Section 215, the cell phone collection data or phone record collection data that everybody is so concerned about, will it make a difference?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, again, it depends a little bit on the details.

If you want to move this information, as he proposes, into some hands other than the NSA, the first question you have to ask is, is that the safer alternative than leaving it with the NSA? And I challenge the basic premise that there is a danger or a threat to Americans’ privacy by the NSA holding this material.

All of the investigations so far have uncovered no abuse. They have uncovered no illegality. And part of the NSA’s mission and its expertise is actually protecting information. I don’t find that private entities, whether it’s my phone company or Internet services I deal with, are all that good at protecting my private information.

The NSA is. I don’t feel threatened at all and I don’t think Americans should feel threatened by having this information held by the NSA, despite this perception. So I think how that’s done is — there may be a way to do it that gives everyone the assurance the information is safe, secure and protecting their privacy. But we will have to see the details of that, because I don’t think it’s really challenging their privacy to you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ms. Martin?

KATE MARTIN: I think the president’s review group outlined the real risks that our history has shown us when the government has access to information about Americans, that the government is tempted and an administration can be tempted to use that information for improper purposes to skew the democratic process.

And the fact that the NSA hasn’t done that in the last seven years is no, you know, assurance that it won’t happen in the future, especially if you go back just as early as 2001 and 2002. You have the clear example of the — a White House going to the NSA and saying, collect on Americans, never mind the legal restrictions. That just happened.

And we have, in my lifetime, in your lifetime, the example of the government, the NSA and the other intelligence agencies collecting on the civil rights movement, et cetera, in order to discredit those movements. And so the review group said to the president, that’s the risk of the government creating enormous databases of information on Americans.

And you can accomplish the intelligence that you need to get without creating such government databases. And I think the president correctly recognized that that is what he needs to do and is going to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. McLaughlin, what about these steps that he has tried to outline about increasing transparency, at home and abroad, saying that I’m not going to be spying on other world leaders and I’m also really going to be starting to extend protections for citizens around the world similar to protection that citizens have here in the U.S.? Does that increase our risk?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I don’t think it increases our risk, necessarily.

And, as usual, the president’s speech was a very lawyerly one. I think, if you look at the language carefully, as the chief executive, he always has the option of making an exception if he finds that it is in the national interests to take a look at some foreign country that he’s taken off the list here.

One thing I would suggest is that we ask foreign countries for reciprocity, because we will be the only country in the world that is that careful in monitoring the activities and intentions of other countries, although he was quite clear to say we will continue to collect on the foreign policy and other intentions of countries.

But I don’t have any problem with him taking our close partners off of that list, and providing he knows — and I’m sure he does — that he can always make an exception. If one of our partners, for example, is debating policy on something like Iran sanctions, and it’s not possible to get a straight answer from them by just asking, it may be quite likely that the president will want to know, well, what are they really thinking?

But if he — as a matter of principle, I think he’s not done anything harmful here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about those — those efforts to increase transparency, including asking privacy advocates to really the table, say, well, is this policy going forward, how do you help to define it and decide it?

KATE MARTIN: Well, I think one of the things the president rightly acknowledged was that the 215 program had been adopted and implemented in secret, without any, as he said, vigorous public debate.

And I hope that he sticks to his promise that we need to have a public debate on what the extent of government surveillance should be, and what safeguards are adequate, and that this is the beginning of that. And you can see Congress is already engaged in it.

The changes that the president has ordered today are only the beginning of what needs to happen, in our view. And he — and we do need more information about the large number of bulk collection programs that the NSA and other parts of the government are currently engaged in on Americans’ personal information.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Kate Martin, John McLaughlin, thanks so much for your time.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

KATE MARTIN: Thank you.