Obama Outlines 'New Approach' For Phone-Data Program

Jan 17, 2014
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne. We've been listening this morning and we're about to listen a little more to President Obama, who is saying that he is ordering changes, a transition at the National Security Agency, not ending a controversial program that gathers the phone records of Americans. But ending it as we know it and making changes that are yet unspecified. The President talked about his planned changes just a moment ago and let's listen to some of that.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives. And open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future. They're also right to point out that all thought the telephone bulk collection program was subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and has been reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, it has never been subject to vigorous public debate. For all these reasons I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists.

And establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need, without the government holding this bulk metadata. This will not be simple, the review group recommended that our current approach be replaced by one in which the providers or a third party retain the bulk records. With government accessing information as needed.

Both of these options pose difficult problems, relying solely on the records of multiple providers for example could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns. On the other hand Any third-party maintaining a single consolidated database, would be carrying out what's essentially a government function but with more expense, more legal ambiguity. Potentially less accountability, all of which would have doubtful impact on increasing public confidence that their privacy is being protected. During the review process some suggested that we may also be able to preserve the capabilities we need through a combination of existing authorities, better information sharing and recent technological advances but more work needs to be done to determine exactly how this system might work.

Because of the challenges involved, I've ordered that the transition away from the existing program will proceed in two steps. Effective immediately we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, instead of the current three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so during this transition period the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.

INSKEEP: That's President Obama speaking a little bit earlier today at the United States Department of Justice. Standing at a lectern before some American flags while Senators and Intelligence Officials listened. Very complicated announcement being made here today. Talking about the way that he intends to change - not end - but change or begin changing a controversial surveillance program that gathers American phone records and also deals with a number of other issues of concern at the National Security Agency. Let's just try to translate what we've just heard, that chunk of the speech we've just heard. NPR's Tom Gjelten is here along with NPR's Tamara Keith and we're going to just talk this through phrase by phrase. First the active phrase there, Tom Gjelten, there for ordering a transition. What's he doing?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: What he's doing Steve is he knows he doesn't like the program as it currently exists but he's not exactly sure how to replace it. So, we're in a kind of limbo period here. Where we know that the program of collecting telephone records on all American's phone calls is going to end, as it currently exists, but what it's going to be replaced by we don't know yet. He says he want to consult Congress, he wants to consult outsiders. That data will still exist, that data will still be collected but where it's going to be held is no yet determined.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, he did. He spoke of a possible third party consolidating this singular database in somewhere else other than the NSA, maybe the telecommunication companies - wasn't clear at all. What could it be?

GJELTEN: Yes, but he also made an argument about why it might not be a good idea to have the telephone companies hold it. So, he's clearly undecided about this. When they talk about a third-party, we heard earlier today from a senior administration official, this is an entity that does not currently exist.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about something else in here. He said something about data from the existing program will proceed in two steps instead of three. Would you just explain what on earth he's taking about there, Tom Gjelten?

GJELTEN: Very quickly. They see a phone number that they regard as suspicious and they want to check into who made that phone call. They find out who that person called and then in the second step they will...

INSKEEP: Call - the numbers they find.

GJELTEN: ... all the numbers.

INSKEEP: Cal the numbers.

GJELTEN: Exactly. Whoever was called, who that person called. So, these are called hops. They're only going to go two hops, previously they've gone three hops. And you did the math a few days ago how quickly that that can expand into a real large number of queries. They're now going from three hops down to just two hops.

INSKEEP: OK. So, less surveillance. I want to ask Tamara Keith about something here. Because the president says, Tamara Keith, I believe the critics are right to point out a number of concerns, but then he went on to say that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is the court that is supposed to rule and issue a warrant before the NSA spies on Americans. But this court even though it's been reauthorized by Congress it, quote, has never been subject to vigorous public debate, I guess that debate would have to be led by congress? Is Congress ready for the debate.

KEITH: I think Congress is possibly ready for that debate but congress is not of one mind about it. Congress - many members of Congress disagree with each other and there are unusual alliances on these issues. And there's also the matter that much of this is classified and they can't actually talk about what they know. And so, that makes the discussion somewhat more challenging as well.

INSKEEP: OK, Tamara thanks very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's White House Correspondent Tamara Keith, she's also covered Congress for years. NPR's Tom Gjelten covers intelligence matters. Tom, thanks to you for coming in as well.

GJELTEN: Of course.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue covering this again. President Obama has announced today that he's ordering a transition, as he calls it, at the National Security Agency. A program to collect phone records of millions of Americans will end as we know it but appears to be ready to continue in some other form that's yet to be determined. We'll try to learn more as we can. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.