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Obama Speaks About Surveillance Changes

Aired January 17, 2014 - 11:30   ET


OBAMA: Regardless of how we got here, though, the task before us now is greater than simply repairing the damage done to our operations or preventing more disclosures from taking place in the future.

Instead, we have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals and our Constitution require.

We need to do so not only because it is right, but because the challenges posed by threats like terrorism and proliferation and cyber-attacks are not going away anytime soon.

They are going to continue to be a major problem. And for our intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, we must maintain the trust of the American people and people around the world.

This effort will not be completed overnight. And given the pace of technological change, we shouldn't expect this to be the last time America has this debate.

But I want the American people to know that the work has begun. Over the last six months, I created an outside review group on intelligence communications technologies to make recommendations for reform.

I consulted with the privacy and civil liberties oversight board, created by Congress. I've listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates, and industry leaders.

My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution.

So, before outlining specific changes that I've ordered, let me make a few broad observations that've emerged from this process.

First, everyone who has looked at these problems, including skeptics of existing programs, recognizes that we have real enemies and threats and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them.

OBAMA: We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications, whether it's to unravel a terrorist plot, to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange, to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts. We are expected to protect the American people. That requires us to have capabilities in this field.

Moreover, we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies. There is a reason why BlackBerrys and iPhones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room.

We know that the intelligence services of other countries, including some who feigned surprise over the Snowden disclosures, are constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations and intercept our e-mails and compromise our systems. We know that.

Meanwhile, a number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world's only superpower, that our intelligence capabilities are critical to meeting these responsibilities and that they themselves have relied on the information we obtain to protect their own people.

Second, just as ardent civil libertarians recognize the need for robust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse as intelligence capabilities advance and more and more private information is digitized.

OBAMA: After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors. They're our friends and family. They've got electronic bank and medical records like everybody else. They have kids on Facebook and Instagram, and they know, more than most of us, the vulnerabilities to privacy that exist in a world where transactions are recorded and e-mail and text messages are stored and even our movements can be tracked through the GPS on our phones.

Third, there was a recognition by all who participated in these reviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes. That's how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone periodically.

But all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance must be higher.

Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say, trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect for history has too many examples when that trust has been breached. Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power. It depends upon the law to constrain those in power.

I make these observations to underscore that the basic values of most Americans when it comes to questions of surveillance and privacy converge a lot more than the crude characterizations that have emerged over the last several months.

Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeating the tragedy 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties. The challenge is getting the details right, and that's not simple.

OBAMA: In fact, during the course of our review, I've often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own government.

And as president, a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can't help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.

Now fortunately, by focusing on facts and specifics rather than speculation and hypotheticals, this review process has given me, and hopefully the American people, some clear direction for change.

And today, I can announce a series of concrete and substantial reforms that my administration attends to adopt administratively, or will seek to codify with Congress.

First, I have approve a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities, both at home, and abroad. This guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities.

It will ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances, our trade and investment relationships, including the concerns of American companies, and our commitment to privacy and basic liberties.

And we will review decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis so that our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior national security team.

Second, we will reform programs and procedures in place to provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.

OBAMA: Since we began this review, including information being released today, we've declassified over 40 opinions and orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides judicial review of some of our most sensitive intelligence activities, including the Section 702 program, targeting foreign individuals overseas and the Section 215, telephone metadata program.

And going forward, I am directing the director of national intelligence, in consultation with the attorney general to annually review, for the purposes of declassification, and future opinions of the court with broad privacy implications, and to report to me and to Congress on these efforts.

To ensure that the court hears a broader range of privacy perspectives, I'm also calling on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Third, we will provide additional protections for activities conducted under Section 702 which allows the government to intercept the communications of foreign targets overseas who have information that's important for our national security.

Specifically, I'm asking the attorney general and DNI to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government's ability to retain, search and use, in criminal cases, communications between Americans and foreign citizens, incidentally collected under section 702.

Fourth, in investigating threats, the FBI also relies on what's called, National Security Letters, which can require companies to provide specific and limited information to the government without disclosing the order to the subject of the investigation.

OBAMA: Now, these are cases in which it's important that the subject of the investigation, such as a possible terrorist or spy, isn't tipped off.

But we can, and should, be more transparent in how government uses this authority. I've therefore directed the attorney general to amend how we use national security letters so this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.

We will also enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government.

This brings me to program that has generated the most controversy these past few months, the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215.

Let me repeat what I said when this story first broke. This program does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers, and the times and lengths of calls, metadata that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.

Why is this necessary? The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11. One of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known Al Qaida safe house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but it could not see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United States.

OBAMA: The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. This capability could also prove valuable in a crisis.

For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort.

In sum, the program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans. Rather, it consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead, a consolidation of phone records that the companies already retain for business purposes.

The Review Group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused. And I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.

Having said that, 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.

OBAMA: They're also rightly point out that, although 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 a 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 that are 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.

OBAMA: 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 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.

Next, step two, I've instructed the intelligence community and attorney general to use this transition period to develop options for a new approach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that the Section 215 program was designed to address without the government holding this metadata itself.

They will report back to me with options for alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28th. And during this period, I will consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views and then seek congressional authorization for the new program as needed.

Now, the reforms I'm proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe.

Now, I recognize that there are additional issues that require further debate. For example, some who participated in our review, as well as some members of Congress, would like to see more sweeping reforms to the use of national security letters, so we have to go to a judge each time before issuing these requests.

OBAMA: Here, I have concerns that we should not set a standard for terrorism investigations that is higher than those involved in investigating an ordinary crime. But I agree that greater oversight on the use of these letters may be appropriate, and I'm prepared to work with Congress on this issue.

There are also those who would like to see different changes to the FISA court than the ones I've proposed. On all these issues I'm open to working with Congress to ensure that we build a broad consensus for how to move forward.

And I'm confident that we can shape an approach that meets our security needs while upholding the civil liberties of every American.

Let me now turn to the separate set of concerns that have been raised overseas and focus on America's approach to intelligence collection abroad. As I've indicated, the United States has unique responsibilities when it comes to intelligence collection. Our capabilities help protect not only our nation but our friends and our allies as well.

But our efforts will only be effective if ordinary citizens in other countries have confidence that the United States respects their privacy, too. And the leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to know what they think about an issue, I'll pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance.

In other words, just as we balance security and privacy at home, our global leadership demands that we balance our security requirements against our need to maintain the trust and cooperation among people and leaders around the world.

For that reason, the new presidential directive that I've issued today will clearly prescribe what we do and do not do when it comes to our overseas surveillance.

OBAMA: To begin with, the directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the e- mails or phone calls of ordinary folks.

I've also made it clear that the United States does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their ethnicity, or race, or gender, or sexual orientation or religious beliefs. We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies, or U.S. commercial sectors.

And in terms of our bulk collection of signals intelligence, U.S. intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific security requirements: Counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber-security, force protection for our troops and allies and combating transnational crime including sanctions evasion.

In this directive I have taken the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas. I have directed the DNI, in consultation with the Attorney General, to develop these safeguards, which will limit the duration that we can hold personal information, while also restricting the use of this information.

The bottom line is that people around the world -- regardless of their nationality -- should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures. This applies to foreign leaders as well.

OBAMA: Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I have made clear to the intelligence community that -- unless there is a compelling national security purpose -- we will not monitor the communications of heads of state, and government, of our close friends and allies.

And I've instructed my national security team, as well as the intelligence community, to work with foreign counterparts to deepen our coordination and cooperation in ways that rebuild trust, going forward.

Now, let me be clear, our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does.

We will not apologize, simply, because our services may be more effective. But, heads of state and government, with who we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners.

And the changes I've ordered, do just that.

Finally, to make sure that we follow through on all these reforms, I'm making some important changes to how our government is organized.

The State Department will designate a senior officer to coordinate our diplomacy on issues related to technology and signals intelligence. We will appoint a senior official at the White House to implement the new privacy safeguards that I've announced today.

I will devote the resources to centralize and improve the process we use to handle foreign requests for legal assistance, keeping our high standards for privacy, while helping foreign partners fight crime and terrorism.

OBAMA: I've also asked my counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy. And this group will consist of government officials, who along with the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, will reach out to privacy experts, technologists and business leaders and look how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors, whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data, and how we can continue to promote the free-flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security.

For ultimately, what's at stake in this debate goes far beyond a few months of headlines, or passing tensions in our foreign policy. When you cut through the noise, what's really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that's remaking itself at dizzying speed.

Whether it's the ability of individuals to access information that would have once filled every great library in every country in the world, or to forge bonds with people on the other side of the globe, technology is remaking what is possible for individuals and for institutions and for the international order.

So all the reforms that I have announced will point us in a new direction. I am mindful that more work will be needed in the future. One thing I am certain of, this debate will make us stronger.

And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead.

It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard, and I'll admit that the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating.

OBAMA: No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account.

But let's remember, we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity.

As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual empowerment, not government control.

Having faced down the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism and communism, the world expects us to stand up for the principle that every person has the right to think and write and form relationships freely, because individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress.

Those values make us who we are. And because of the strength of our own democracy, we should not shy away from high expectations.

For more than two centuries, our Constitution has weathered every type of change because we've been willing to defend it and because we've been willing to question the actions that have been taken in its defense.

Today is no different. I believe we can meet high expectations. Together, let us chart a way forward that secures the life of our nation, while preserving the liberties that make our nation worth fighting for.

Thank you. God bless you. May God bless the United States of America.


Thank you.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The President of the United States at the U.S. Justice Department, outlining a series of reforms to NSA surveillance. Some will say he didn't go far enough. Others will say he went too far. There's a lot to dissect and digest right now. A lot to understand. I'm Wolf Blitzer here in Washington. Once again, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Jim Sciutto, you're our chief national security correspondent. What did you take away from that?

JIM SCIOTTO, CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I would say it was a thoughtful but also a confident speech. I think it's clear that there are things the president is willing to apologize for and explain, but things that he's not going to. For instance, he says that he went too far with the spying on foreign leaders. He says if I want to talk to Angela Merkel, I'll call her on the telephone. He talked about -- acknowledged there is a perception this went too far and that's something the U.S. is held to a higher standard on.

On the other hand, he made the case for why bulk collection is still necessary. Why in today's world when you can build a bomb in the basement or post 9/11, you need this tool with more safeguards, but you need this kind of tool. He also - he will say, I'm not going to spy on foreign leaders, but he does say I'm going to spy on foreign governments and it was a scruffy (ph) line for him there. He said, our agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, we will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective.

BLITZER: He sort of said this bulk data collection will continue.


BLITZER: But he needs to work with Congress and others to come up with a new way to do it. And he has to do it by the end of March.

BORGER: Right. He's trying to put in some more safeguards here. There are a lot of things he left up to Congress. What was interesting to me, Wolf, was he made the point, and I think he's right, that for intelligence to be effective, it has to have the trust of the American people. The American people cannot believe they're being spied on willy-nilly for no particular reason. And I think a concern of this administration has been not just in the wake of Snowden, but before, with the controversy over drones, is that they need to demystify to a certain degree just exactly what we're doing.