When newspapers began publishing Snowden's revelations, Obama said he welcomed a debate on electronic surveillance and appointed a task force to propose possible changes. On Friday, the president responded to the panel's recommendations in a speech that went further than many had expected in embracing significant reforms.
Most important, Obama wisely accepted the recommendation that the government no longer collect and store massive amounts of telephone metadata — information about the source, destination and duration of telephone calls that can be "queried" or searched to turn up connections to foreign terrorists. Government possession of such information, the task force warned, "creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty." It urged that the data be held instead by phone companies or some third party.
Obama didn't order an immediate end to the current program. Instead, he announced a two-step transition process. In the first phase, new limits will be placed on how extensively the government can query phone records in its possession, and the decision about whether there is reasonable suspicion justifying a search will be made by a court, not by investigators. In the second phase, administration officials will study ways in which the government might relinquish control of the records, and report back to Obama by March 28.
That's a good start, but lawmakers should ponder a broader question: whether the metadata program is worth continuing even if the records are privately held. The task force concluded that information obtained from it "was not essential to preventing attacks" and could have been obtained by other means.
Obama also will ask