President Obama will require intelligence agencies to obtain permission from a secret court before tapping into a vast database of telephone data, but he will leave the data in the hands of the government for now, an administration official said.
Mr. Obama, in a much-anticipated speech on Friday morning, plans to pull back the government’s wide net of surveillance at home and abroad, staking out a middle ground between the far-reaching proposals of his own advisers and the concerns of the nation’s intelligence agencies.
At the heart of the changes, spurred by the disclosure of surveillance practices by a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, will be an overhaul of a bulk data collection program that has swept up many millions of records of Americans’ telephone calls, though not their content.
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In a speech on Friday at the Justice Department, Obama will call for an as-yet unspecified private entity to hold data on telephone calls made in the United States, and for the NSA or the FBI to receive a judicial finding from a secret surveillance court before it can search through the data trove.
Details of how the program will operate in the future appeared unresolved hours before the widely anticipated speech. A senior administration official indicated that transitioning the metadata collection will take some time. Privacy advocates have been bracing themselves during the past week for Obama to call for merely cosmetic changes to a surveillance effort they regard as a civil liberties catastrophe.
But a senior administration official portrayed the shift as an overhaul to mass surveillance that would better respect civil liberties, rather than an outright end to a practice the government has claimed is a critical counter-terrorism tool – a contention resisted by a federal judge, knowledgeable senators and Obama’s own surveillance advisory group.
“The president believes that the 215 program addresses important capabilities that allow us to counter-terrorism, but that we can and should be able to preserve those capabilities while addressing the privacy and civil liberties concerns that are raised by the government holding this metadata,” the official said Friday, using a bureaucratic shorthand for the bulk collection of phone data.
But “effective immediately”, the NSA will need to obtain a finding from the secret surveillance panel known as the Fisa court in order to search its phone records database, a judicial check that has never existed since a version of the bulk phone data collection began in October 2001.
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The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.