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Obama and the journey to find ‘balance’ in NSA surveillance

During his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, President Obama stated that he would work with Congress to reform U.S. surveillance practices; citing the need for America to move off a “permanent war footing.” The president stated that the work of the intelligence community depended “on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”

“NSA” and “surveillance” were not mentioned once in the 2013 State of the Union address. Yet, by year’s end there was no doubt those terms would make their way into President Barack Obama’s 2014 speech.

In June 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed top secret National Security Agency documents to newspapers The Guardian and The Washington Post in what was considered the largest leak since the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The classified material revealed through published reports the mass surveillance of phone records and metadata by the NSA in addition to collection of information via the internet through programs such as PRISM.

“Even if you’re doing nothing wrong, you’re being watched and recorded,” Snowden said in a video statement after his identity as whistleblower was revealed.

Government was quick to respond. The Obama administration defended the NSA programs, with the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, saying the disclosures risked “important protections” for American security. President Obama said that the metadata could possibly identify potential terror suspects and the surveillance had oversight. “There are a whole range of safeguards involved,” the president said in a speech in San Jose, Calif. “And federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout.”

Yet, President Obama also added that balance between privacy and safety was a vital issue. “There are some tradeoffs involved. And I welcome this debate.”

As more documents and revelations continued to be revealed in the coming months, including surveillance conducted on the leaders of foreign allied nations, calls for action were issued. On December 16, a federal judge ruled the NSA’s collection of phone records was likely unconstitutional. Shortly after, on Jan. 3, a FISA court reauthorized the phone surveillance program. On Jan. 23, a federal oversight panel recommended the termination of phone record collection. With a public split on the issue of privacy versus security, the president faced the challenge of proposing a middle ground that would weigh protections versus freedoms.

The course for 2014 looks to see President Obama and his administration aim to curb NSA surveillance, though continue to seek the balance the president mentioned in his first acknowledgement of this issue in October. On Jan. 17, the president reassured the American people with proposed reforms to surveillance practices, but also was sure to defend the existence of the programs:

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.”

Some of the proposals included having phone companies store the phone records, taking the metadata out of the hands of the government, in addition to the end of surveillance of foreign leaders such as Angela Merkel. Obama also asked Congress to authorize a panel of advocates from outside government to act as an independent “voice” in cases before FISA.

The reforms have supporters and detractors, with Congressional action and debate to come in the next months.

Shields and Brooks debated the NSA mass surveillance revelations after their initial disclosure in June:

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