WASHINGTON — President Obama has ordered new rules for how the government conducts surveillance, imposing some new restrictions on intelligence agencies but leaving the bulk of what they do intact.
In a speech at the Justice Department, Obama acknowledged the unease that many Americans have felt about the widespread surveillance programs revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. But he strongly defended the NSA and other intelligence agencies, saying they have not abused their vast powers.
“Nothing that I have learned” since taking office indicates “that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” Obama said. “They are not abusing authority in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails.”
Echoing warnings made by his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama stressed that the U.S. faces “real enemies and threats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them.”
“America must be vigilant in face of threats,” he said.
But, he added, even though he does not believe the government’s surveillance powers have been abused, he recognizes that they are subject to abuse in the future.
“Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: 'Trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect.' For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached,” he said.
“People around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people,” he said.
To try to prevent abuses, Obama announced a series of changes designed to give the public “greater confidence” in how the government uses its powers.
Among the changes:
- Instead of having the NSA hold its database of information about telephone calls, which includes what phone numbers were called and when, Obama is proposing to shift the database away from direct government control. The details of how – or if – that will be done will have to be worked out with Congress.
- For now, NSA analysts will have to get court approval to obtain information from the database, except in emergencies. Currently, NSA officials can authorize searches on their own so long as they have a “reasonably articulated suspicion” that a particular number is involved in terrorist activities. NSA officials say they made 288 such queries in 2012.
- Currently, NSA analysts can trace all numbers that have been in contact with a suspect’s number and then all numbers that have been in contact with telephones in that second tier. Under the new rules, the NSA will not pursue that third “hop.” That will restrict how many numbers are scrutinized.
- Intelligence agencies will face new restrictions on eavesdropping on the phones of leaders of friendly countries.
- He will ask Congress to create a new panel of public advocates who can counter the arguments of government lawyers before the secret court that rules on requests for surveillance. But the advocates will work only in cases involving broad policy issues, not on every request for judicial review.
- A new policy directive orders intelligence agencies to protect the privacy rights of foreign persons but does not restrict the government’s ability to use information obtained overseas in its investigations.
- The FBI will still be able to use secret “national security letters” to demand information about terrorism suspects from banks, credit card companies and other third parties without obtaining a court order. But under the new rules, the government will eventually have to reveal the existence of those letters and the information requested.
- Technology and communications companies will get new leeway to reveal what data they have provided to the government.
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