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Obama may rein in NSA's collection of U.S. telephone records

Barack ObamaNational GovernmentNational Security AgencyPoliticsWhite HouseEdward Snowden

WASHINGTON -- President Obama signaled Friday that he may change one of the most controversial spy practices of the secretive National Security Agency, reining in its collection of the daily telephone records of millions of Americans. 

A day after the White House released a review panel’s recommendations for wide-ranging changes to NSA surveillance techniques, Obama told reporters he believed that better ways may be found to allow the NSA to continue to track suspected terrorist plots while reassuring the public that the government will not invade their privacy.

“I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around,” Obama said at a White House news conference. But, he said, “we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I'm going to be working very hard on doing that."

The 46 recommendations made by Obama’s review panel surprised many people in the nation’s intelligence agencies, going much further than they had expected. But White House aides have suggested that Obama is open to the vast majority of the suggestions. He plans to examine them over his holiday break and speak at length on them after he returns to Washington in January, he said.

In the meantime, the president’s language marked a significant shift from previous defense of the agency.

When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to disclose information about the agency in June, Obama initially tried to reassure Americans that his administration had carefully evaluated surveillance techniques and had struck an appropriate balance between security and privacy.

But since then, “the environment has changed” because of the effect Snowden’s revelations have had on how the public views the government’s surveillance efforts, Obama said.

“People right now are concerned that maybe their phone calls are being listened to -- even if they're not --  and we've got to factor that in.”

Some of the phone records now being collected by the government and available to NSA analysts without court scrutiny might just as well be maintained by phone companies and accessed only when intelligence officials have determined they need them, Obama said.

Such a change might head off “potential abuse down the road with the metadata that’s being kept by a government,” Obama said, and it could also address public concern.

Making that shift in who controls the data and requiring the NSA to get permission from judges each time it searches phone records were two of the main recommendations the review panel made.

Although he still believes that intelligence agencies have handled their jobs appropriately, Obama said, he understands that public “trust in how many safeguards exist and how these programs are run has been diminished. So what's going to be important is to build that back up. And I take that into account in weighing how we structure these programs.”

Twitter: @cparsons

christi.parsons@latimes.com

Twitter: @KenDilanianLAT

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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