Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

National and World

January 17, 2014

Obama to back modest gov’t surveillance reforms

WASHINGTON — Capping a monthslong review, President Barack Obama is expected to back modest changes to the government’s surveillance network at home and abroad while largely leaving the framework of the controversial programs in place, including the bulk collection of phone records from millions of Americans.

The approach reflects a president seeking the middle ground in the resurgent debate over Americans’ privacy and the security measures needed to keep the country safe.

Obama was to detail his decisions in a much-anticipated speech Friday morning at the Justice Department. The speech follows an internal review spurred by disclosures about the government’s sweeping surveillance programs by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden.

But the president’s address may leave many questions about reforms to the surveillance programs unanswered. He was expected to recommend further study on several of the 46 recommendations he received from a presidential review group, including a proposal to strip the NSA of its ability to hold Americans’ phone records and ideas for expanding privacy protections to foreigners. 

Many of the changes Obama was expected to announce appeared aimed at shoring up the public’s confidence in the spying operations. That included a move to add an independent privacy advocate to the secretive court that approves the phone record collections.

In previewing Obama’s speech, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the president believed the government could make surveillance activities “more transparent in order to give the public more confidence about the problems and the oversight of the programs.”

Officials said that even after months of studying the surveillance issues, Obama was still grappling with his decisions in the hours leading up to the speech.

What appeared certain was that the NSA’s phone record gathering would continue in some form.

U.S. officials familiar with the White House review said the president would broadly call for changes in the program but would leave the specifics to Congress.

The move would thrust the decision-making into the hands of lawmakers, who are at odds over the future of the surveillance programs, raising questions about how quickly change would come, if it comes at all. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the review by name ahead of Obama’s speech.

Obama might highlight modest changes to the phone records program he could take using executive action, including reducing the amount of time U.S. data could be held from its current limit of five years. He also was expected to detail guidelines for when the NSA could actually gather bulk data.

Privacy groups have been pressing for guidelines that significantly narrow the amount of data collected from Americans. But the officials were banking on broad rules that do little to actually limit their activities.

The president also was expected to announce changes in U.S. surveillance operations overseas, including ratcheting up oversight to determine whether the government will monitor communications of friendly foreign leaders.

The leaks from Snowden, a fugitive now living in Russia, included revelations the U.S. was monitoring the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sparking intense anger in Europe.

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