President Obama will attempt to calm the controversy over spying by the NSA in an announcement today that he is looking to end the government’s control of phone data from millions of Americans, and to require that intelligence agencies get a secretive court’s permission before accessing the records, according to a report by the Associated Press.
The AP quoted a senior administration official as saying the president will not say where the phone records should be moved to, deferring that question to the attorney general and the intelligence community to figure out. The collection program is up for reauthorization on March 28, making it certain that Congress will also play a role in the discussions.
The president’s recommendations will come later today in a highly anticipated speech that the AP source says will be more sweeping than many Washington insiders are expecting. Even up to the last minute, the president was still wrestling with details of the speech.
Privacy advocates and many liberal groups—in addition to foreign heads of state such as the German and Brazilian leaders whose private conversations have reportedly been swept up in government surveillance—are calling for broad changes. But the intelligence community would like the president to keep the NSA program intact, saying it provides crucial data in the fight against terrorism.
A federal judge has disagreed with the government, saying the authors of the Constitution “would be aghast” at the NSA’s sweeping surveillance program. However, a different judge in New York came along with a ruling that directly contradicted the first, calling the program a legal, valuable tool—and virtually guaranteeing that ultimately it will be left up to the Supreme Court to decide.
But changes are expected to be met with pushback from some in the intelligence community, who have been pressing Obama to keep the surveillance programs largely intact.
In the meantime, congressional leaders contend that the moves the president is seeking will require their approval—though with such a bitterly divided Congress, no one expects that to happen anytime soon.
While privacy advocates say moving the data outside the government’s control could minimize the risk of unauthorized or overly broad searches by the NSA—a move first proposed by a review panel created by the president—phone providers are opposed to having the phone records placed back in their control.
In discussing Obama’s speech yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said 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.”