In what was the most significant speech on Internet surveillance by the government since Edward Snowden released his collection of secretive NSA documents last year, President Barack Obama announced new measures today that will limit the power of the government's spying program, while also trying to sell American citizens on why the program must still be in place.
After criticism from privacy advocates in the United States and from allies overseas, President Obama introduced measures to limit the amount of time the NSA can keep the metadata they collect, while adding that the data will not be kept inside the government. The NSA will now collect fewer calls, and analysts have to get a judge's approval to look at records. Essentially, the program will stay intact, but the agency will have less of an opportunity to step outside of its authority. He will also set up an independent panel of advocates outside of the government who will provide perspective in significant cases that come under review.
"We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies," Obama said in his speech, explaining that countries, such as China, also have surveillance programs in place. "There is a reason why BlackBerries and iPhones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room."
The United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security.
"No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account," he continued. The President emphasized that the United States is held at a higher standard because its program is more efficient than those of other countries.
Obama also took the chance to clarify that metadata—which includes phone numbers, call duration, and when a phone call took place—does not include the content of said calls. He used an example from the 9/11 attacks to stress the importance of collecting metadata and the NSA's efforts.
"The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11," Obama said. "One of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States." Section 215 of the Patriot Act was then established to allow the government to quickly map the communications of terrorists.
Announcing these new limitations was also important in that the United States must begin repairing the relationships it had with allies who found out they were spied on. Snowden's leaked documents revealed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of dozens of leaders of friendly countries who had their emails and texts read by the NSA. Obama slightly referred to this criticism today. "The United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security," and "we take their privacy concerns into account," he said. "This applies to foreign leaders as well."
President Obama's speech comes in response to the thousands of NSA documents that former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden released in June 2013 through The Guardian, which revealed the far reaching technology that the agency had developed to collect the metadata from phone calls of American citizens and those overseas. "I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations," Obama said, "[but] our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets."
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told CNN it was “embarrassing for a head of state to go on like that for 45 minutes and say almost nothing.”
A response from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is expected in the coming days.
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