Obama defends NSA surveillance, sets new curbs

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama is curbing the National Security Agency’s surveillance capabilities as well as the routine monitoring of foreign leaders, even as he endorsed a need for far-reaching surveillance.

He has also asked Attorney General Eric Holder to devise new rules that will extend some U.S. privacy protections to suspected foreign criminals outside the United States.

While the changes fall far short of the drastic cutbacks demanded by progressives and some small government conservatives, they could be enough to bolster the president’s sagging support among progressives during the run-up to the mid-term elections.

“There has not been any indications of abuse…. the intelligence community has followed the protocols established by Congress and the courts,” a White House official said Friday. But, he added, “we have a responsibility to carefully review these kinds of surveillance programs, given the potential for overreach.”

The measures may also reduce overseas and domestic protests against the NSA’s activities, and bolster the long-term domestic political support for the NSA’s activities.

The new policies were spurred by Edward Snowden’s release of classified data about NSA activities. Snowden, a former U.S. contractor with security clearances, is now evading a U.S. arrest warrant by living in Russia.

The new rules require NSA officials to seek court approval every time they want to check the phone “metadata” records of U.S.-based people involved in international phone calls. The records show who called whom, but do not show the contents of each call.

The new procedures are to be developed by Attorney General Eric Holder’s deputies at the Department of Justice, in cooperation with the NSA, a White House official said Jan. 17 .

This change to the “Section 215” program may slow and constrict investigators before and after a terror strike. But the White House official said the administration would work those problems out.

The change marks a partial reversion to pre-9/11 practices, when extensive privacy rules limited police powers, and helped the 9/11 jihadis evade detection and arrest — even after one of their fellow jihadis was arrested.

Also, Obama will also order his deputies to develop an alternative means of storing the metadata which is now held in the NSA’s secure databases. The data may be stored by the cellphone companies, or in a new organization, the official said.

But officials also defended the program, which allow the NSA to quickly track the cellphone conversations held by spies or jihadis, so helping to reveal their supporters, helpers, suppliers and funders.

The metadata program “is not a domestic spying program… [it] has been a useful program [and] is a capability that needs to be preserved,” said the official.

Obama also directed the NSA to end the routine surveillance of many foreign leaders, including German President Angela Merkel.

Obama is “not going to turn to do surveillance of their personal communications… he will pick up the phone himself and call them” when he want to find out what they believe, said the official.

However, friendly governments usually have different interests from the United States. German leaders, for example, have allowed German companies to export high-tech machinery to Iran, despite U.S. sanctions.

Holder is also tasked with developing unprecedented rules that would legally constrict U.S. surveillance of foreigners by extending some U.S. civil liberties to non-Americans involved in routine criminal investigations.

The novel goal is to offer “some of those [criminal] protections for foreign persons… [and] to bring our practices with respect to non-U.S. persons in line with protections we have for U.S. persons,” the official said.

The White House will also release a policy paper declaring that U.S. surveillance is not used to help U.S. companies, nor to undermine foreign politicians, he said.

The paper will also say the U.S. surveillance does not discriminate on the basis of sex, race or “sexual orientation,” he said.

Holder will be asked to draft rules for publicizing some of the secret decisions taken by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA and limits surveillance of U.S. citizens anywhere, or of foreigners living in the United States.

Holder is also expected to draft rules that would curb so-called “National Security Letters,” which are used by the NSA to request information from U.S. companies. The procedures would require the NSA to win outside approval before sending out the letters, could require eventual public disclosure of the letters, and would allow companies to publicize some information about the NSA’s requests.

Obama has also asked his deputy, John Podesta, to work with major companies to develop rules for the use of so-called “big data” that is collected by companies such as Facebook and Google.

Podesta is a Democratic partisan, who founded the Center for American Progress. Obama recently hired him to help manage the White House.

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