WASHINGTON — President Obama gave the first indication of the potential outcome of an intense debate over restricting the nation’s intelligence agencies, signaling Friday that he may change one of the most controversial spy practices of the secretive National Security Agency — the collection of the daily telephone records of millions of Americans.
Senior intelligence officials and their allies on the congressional intelligence committees are pushing the president to reject key recommendations made by an advisory panel he appointed, including some that are of keen importance to privacy advocates and major technology companies, such as Google, Apple and Microsoft, whose executives met with Obama this week.
The White House released the recommendations Thursday, and officials say Obama so far hasn’t ruled out any except a proposal to appoint a civilian director of the NSA.
The president plans to examine the issues during his holiday break and disclose his decisions after he returns to Washington in January.
In the meantime, Obama’s language in a news conference Friday at the White House marked a significant shift from his previous defenses of the spy agency. In June, when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures of information about the agency’s activities were made public, Obama tried to reassure Americans that his administration had carefully evaluated surveillance techniques and had struck an appropriate balance between security and privacy.
Since then, Obama said, “the environment has changed” because of the impact of Snowden’s revelations on public perceptions of government surveillance.
“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,” he said.
“I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around,” Obama said. But, he added, “we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I’m going to be working very hard on doing that.”
Shortly after Obama spoke, the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued a statement defending the NSA’s telephone records program. The NSA’s collection of “metadata” — information such as which numbers a particular phone connected with and how long calls lasted — is “a valuable analytical tool that assists intelligence personnel in their efforts to efficiently ‘connect the dots’ on emerging or current terrorist threats,” said the statement by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), along with Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.).
Among the review panel’s 46 recommendations, one — that telecommunications companies, rather than the government, store the records of phone calls — appears to have a strong likelihood of being adopted.
Such a change might head off “potential abuse down the road,” Obama said, and could address public concerns.
Intelligence officials have indicated that they could live with that change. “We’re the ones who have been pushing” for it, said a senior intelligence official who has been privy to discussions about the recommendations, noting that NSA Director Keith Alexander “has testified all along that we would be fine with it.”
In order for the phone companies to keep the data, Congress would have to pass legislation requiring them to do so, the official said, and a way would have to be found to standardize and combine the data for easy searching. A far more controversial issue is whether to impose new restrictions on how freely NSA analysts can search the data. The review panel has recommended that the agency be required to get judicial approval for each search, something intelligence officials strongly oppose.
The senior intelligence official said a broad consensus exists within the administration to reject another of the report’s recommendations that would curb FBI use of “national security letters” — administrative subpoenas that don’t require approval of a judge — to obtain personal information in terrorism investigations.
Intelligence officials also have deep concerns about a recommendation to restrict how the NSA can use data on Americans that it collects incidentally when it targets foreign Internet and telephone communications, the official said.
“Once we collect the information lawfully, are we going to say we’re not going to look at the data we have?” the official asked.
That recommendation, however, has been important to both privacy advocates and technology firms. When Snowden disclosed documents showing that the NSA had been widely collecting the content of Internet communications from Google, Microsoft, Apple and other U.S. companies, U.S. officials said any data on Americans were subject to “minimization.” Officials left the impression that such information would not be used except in rare cases for intelligence purposes.
The review panel’s recommendation essentially asked Obama to codify those assertions. If he rejected that recommendation under pressure from the intelligence community, that would raise red flags.
Obama briefly touched on another controversial recommendation — to restrict intelligence-gathering on foreign citizens, who are not protected by the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.
“We do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are not spying on Americans,” he said. “We’ve had less legal constraint in terms of what we’re doing internationally.
“In a virtual world, some of these boundaries don’t matter anymore. And just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should, and the values that we’ve got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders, I think, perhaps more systematically than we’ve done in the past.”
In a sign of just how deeply the leaks about spy practices have rocked his administration, Obama took care to distance himself from his national intelligence director, James R. Clapper. Last spring, Clapper denied in testimony to Congress that the NSA collected any type of data on millions of Americans. A few weeks later, Snowden’s disclosures revealed otherwise.
Asked whether Clapper’s continued presence on the job might undermine public trust in the administration, Obama objected that the questioner was “conflating” him and Clapper.
Obama said the current debate was necessary. But he added that he believed the disclosures had done “unnecessary damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities and U.S. diplomacy.”
Still, with Snowden gaining hero status among many liberal Democrats, Obama pointedly avoided closing the door on granting him some form of amnesty. The head of an NSA task force on Snowden said in an interview with “60 Minutes” this week that it was “worth having a conversation” about.
Asked whether he would rule that out, Obama said only that there was a difference between the task force chairman saying something “and the president of the United States saying something.”
Civil liberties groups embraced the president’s apparent willingness to end the collection of call records — and they praised Snowden for bringing the information to light.
“We continue to believe that Edward Snowden should be applauded, not prosecuted, for initiating this historic debate about surveillance and privacy,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.