PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA will today present Americans with long-awaited reforms of spy agency phone and internet data collection sweeps, prompted by the damaging torrent of leaks unleashed by Edward Snowden.
Caught between civil liberties campaigners and a resistant intelligence community, Obama is expected to roll out only modest changes to the massive “metadata” dragnets laid by the National Security Agency.
Snowden, a fugitive US contractor now exiled in Russia, has fueled months of revelations by media organisations over data mining and spying on foreign leaders by the NSA in one of the biggest security breaches in US history.
The disclosures have infuriated US allies, embarrassed Obama administration diplomats and shocked privacy campaigners and lawmakers.
The White House has assured Americans that data on phone calls and Internet use is only collected to build patterns of contacts between terror suspects – and that US spies are not listening in.
But Obama has said that one of his goals in today’s speech at the US Justice Department is to restore public confidence in the clandestine community.
His appearance follows a prolonged period of soul-searching and policy reviews by the White House.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama viewed Snowden’s disclosures as damaging but realized that reforms were necessary.
“The president has… acknowledged all along that the debates that those disclosures sparked were legitimate, that the questions that have been asked and the ideas that have been put forward about ways we may need to examine and perhaps reform our signal intelligence collection have all been worthwhile and legitimate,” Carney said.
On the eve of the speech, Britain’s Guardian newspaper and Channel 4 News splashed the latest revelations from Snowden.
Their reports said the NSA had collected almost 200 million mobile phone text messages a day from around the world, and used them to extract data on the location, contact networks and credit card details of mobile users.
Civil liberties activists are bracing themselves for disappointment.
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Obama would likely neither outlaw nor significantly reform bulk collection of telephone and Internet “metadata.”
“We are looking to the president tomorrow to make a very bold statement about reclaiming privacy. We are looking to him to take leadership about reining in this programs,” she said.
“Will our government continue to spy on everyday Americans?”
Kevin Bankston, policy director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, warned that if Obama did not announce specific reforms, the battle would shift to Congress.
“President Obama’s trajectory on these issues from reformer to supporter of these programs has been very dispiriting,” Bankston said.
“If he does fail to take a stand and exercise the bold leadership that is necessary it will become Congress’s responsibility to step into the breach and we look forward to working with them to do so.”
Intelligence chiefs say the programs are perfectly legal, but their opponents say they are unconstitutional.
In one specific area of NSA reform, the White House had indicated that Obama was looking at the idea of preventing the NSA from hoarding phone and Internet data itself.
Instead, the responsibility would reside with phone companies or a third party and NSA agents would have to acquire permission from a special court to access it.
But media reports say that Obama may leave it up to Congress to decide how to handle the data, or even leave it with the NSA.
Obama is also expected to back extra privacy protections for foreigners swept up by the programs and limits to spying on friendly world leaders.
His challenge will be to prove that data mining programs, made possible by swift advances in technology, can enhance national security while restoring public confidence that individual freedoms are safe.
During his deliberations, Obama has had to reconcile his duties as a commander-in-chief sworn to keep Americans safe and his oath to uphold the US Constitution.
Not to mention guard his political flank — Obama knows his Republican enemies would pounce if a future terror attack could be pinned on restrictions he placed on spy agency capabilities.
The idea of taking the responsibility for data storage away from the NSA was endorsed by a review board report commissioned by Obama, which came up with more than 40 recommendations for reform.
But the group did not recommend an end to the program. In fact, one member, former deputy CIA director Michael Morell, said the program could have prevented 9/11 had it been in place in 2001.
The president’s speech will be closely watched for any changes to the PRISM program, which mainly sweeps up Internet data on foreigners, based on records acquired from Internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Apple.
- © AFP 2014.