WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama made clear Friday that he has no intention of stopping the daily collection of phone records from millions of Americans, but he promised “appropriate reforms” to how such surveillance is carried out.
In an afternoon news conference, the president acknowledged the domestic spying has troubled Americans and hurt the country’s image abroad. But Obama blamed the damage on misinformation stemming from leaks to the news media.
“Understandably, people would be concerned,” the president said. “I would be, too, if I weren’t inside the government.”
But he assured Americans that the surveillance is not being abused, and he described the phone program as “an important tool” that keeps America safe.
“It’s not enough for me to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said. “The American people have to have confidence in them as well.”
Every day, the National Security Agency sweeps up the phone records of all Americans. The program was authorized under the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after 9/11. The NSA says phone records are the only things it collects in bulk under that law. But officials have left open the possibility that it could create similar databases of people’s credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.
The changes Obama endorsed include: formation of an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers; assigning a privacy officer at the National Security Agency; and the creation of an independent attorney to argue against the government before the nation’s surveillance court.
All those new officials would carry out most of their duties in secret.
Obama’s news conference comes at the end of a summer that forced the administration into an unexpected debate over domestic surveillance. The debate began when former government contract systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing NSA programs that store years of phone records on every American.
That revelation prompted the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after 9/11 attacks.
Obama has found Congress surprisingly hostile to those powers since they were made public. The telephone program narrowly survived a 217-205 vote in the House to dismantle it. An unusual coalition of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats pose a challenge to Obama, who has aligned himself with establishment Republicans and Congress’ pro-security lawmakers.
The administration says it only looks at the phone records when investigating suspected terrorists. But testimony before Congress revealed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analyzed by the government.
When the NSA identifies a suspect, it can conduct three “hops.” That means analysts can look not just at the suspect’s phone records, but also at the records of everyone he calls, everyone who calls those people and everyone who calls those people.
If the average person called 40 unique people, three-hop analysis would allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.