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Live updates: Obama’s NSA reforms

After more than six months of controversy over U.S. surveillance policies, President Obama is speaking at the U.S. Department of Justice on Friday to outline how he intends to restore trust in the National Security Agency and in the government’s ability to balance national security and privacy interests. Check here for live updates and analysis from the Post’s national security, technology and White House reporters.

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Setting the scene

Here’s what Obama is expected to say, per David Nakamura and Ellen Nakashima:

President Obama will call Friday for significant changes to the way the National Security Agency collects and uses telephone records of U.S. citizens, moving to transition away from government control of the information and requiring authorities to obtain a court order to get access to it, a White House official said.

After more than six months of controversy over U.S. surveillance policies, Obama will speak at the U.S. Department of Justice to outline how he intends to restore trust in the National Security Agency and in the government’s ability to balance national security and privacy interests.

The president plans to say that the NSA’s metadata program remains a critical tool for U.S. intelligence agencies to root out and prevent terrorist activities, said the administration official, who spoke in advance of the speech on condition of anonymity.

But Obama also will say that the United States should be able to “preserve those capabilities while addressing the privacy and civil liberties concerns” raised by recent disclosures in the media about government control of the metadata.

Obama has asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and intelligence officials to deliver a plan to transition away from government control of the information before March 28, when the program is due to be reauthorized by a secret court, the official said. Obama also will consult Congress for additional input, asking lawmakers to deliberate on the appropriate boundaries for the phone records collection.

Current and former officials familiar with Obama’s plans said Thursday that the president will authorize some new privacy protections for foreigners whose data are collected by the NSA and will propose the establishment of a public advocate to represent privacy interests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Aaron Blake
January 17, 10:30 am
  • Aaron Blake January 17, 10:30 am

4 numbers you need to know

Want a quick primer on where the American people stand on NSA surveillance?

Here are four numbers that tell the tale:

* 60 percent: That’s the percentage of Americans who said they believe Edward Snowden’s exposure of surveillance programs harmed national security, according to the poll. That was up 11 percent from July. While there are serious concerns about privacy with regard to the NSA’s efforts (more on that in a moment), it’s not as if the president is addressing a country that has rallied around Snowden or his cause. (More than half of Americans said Snowden should be charged with a crime.) That’s important to keep in mind. Obama will probably explain why it’s important to keep classified information classified. But he doesn’t have to linger on that point because Americans already see a risk in such information leaking out.

* 68 percent: Nearly 70 percent said the NSA’s surveillance of telephone call records and Internet traffic intrudes on some Americans’ privacy rights, according to the Post-ABC poll. Herein lies Obama’s challenge: How do you sell the public on keeping a phone record program that has triggered deep concerns about privacy? Will limits on the program change Americans’ opinions? Obama certainly hopes that it will.

* 53 percent: More than half of Americans said they disapproved of the way Obama had handled the NSA surveillance activities, compared to just 35 percent who said they approved in the Post-ABC poll. That’s the baseline Obama is working from, and today is his next big chance to improve his standing. So far, Obama has struggled to settle nerves among his most ardent supporters – just 56 percent of Democrats approved of his handling of NSA surveillance, 28 points below his overall job approval mark among fellow partisans.

* 2 percent: The NSA programs were not named among Americans’ list of Obama’s “biggest failures” in the Gallup poll. What’s more, just 2 percent said anything close to it (“taking away rights/overstepping constitutional powers”) should be placed in that category. There’s no doubt that the revelations about the programs hurt Obama in what amounted to the worst year of his presidency. But it’s simply not his biggest political problem. So no matter what Obama says or how he is received today, don’t expect to see his broader image change dramatically as a result.

Sean Sullivan and Scott Clement
January 17, 10:32 am
  • Sean Sullivan and Scott Clement January 17, 10:32 am

Is Obama 'ending' phone program?

Some early reports this morning, quoting White House officials, have suggested that President Obama will call for an “end” to the phone record collection program.

But that’s probably not the most accurate description.

What Obama is set to call for, in fact, is for the data from the metadata program to be housed outside the government, allowing the NSA to access it through a court order.

In other words, the data will still be collected; it’s just a matter of how easy it is for the NSA to access it.

The details are important on this, and we probably won’t know today precisely how the changes will be implemented and how readily accessible the information will be.


Aaron Blake
January 17, 10:41 am
  • Aaron Blake January 17, 10:41 am

Julian Assange to respond on CNN

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will respond to Obama’s speech on CNN, according to the Wikileaks Twitter account:


Aaron Blake
January 17, 10:47 am
  • Aaron Blake January 17, 10:47 am

Greenwald decries 'PR gesture'

Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been working with Edward Snowden to disclose many of the NSA’s secrets, is already denouncing Obama’s speech as a PR stunt.

Here’s his comment to Al Jazeera America:

“It’s really just basically a PR gesture, a way to calm the public and to make them think there’s reform when in reality there really won’t be. And I think that if the public, at this point, has heard enough about what the NSA does and how invasive it is, that they’re going to need more than just a pretty speech from President Obama to feel as though their concerns have been addressed.”

Aaron Blake
January 17, 11:00 am
  • Aaron Blake January 17, 11:00 am

Obama's full policy directive

Here’s the just-released document outlining the set of policies that Obama will outline today:

Aaron Blake
January 17, 11:04 am
  • Aaron Blake January 17, 11:04 am

Obama running late

President Obama, who is almost always late for such speeches, is running behind again.

Obama’s motorcade left the White House for the Department of Justice at 11:03 a.m. —three minutes after his speech was scheduled to start.

National security adviser Susan Rice was spotted getting into the car with Obama.

Aaron Blake
January 17, 11:13 am
  • Aaron Blake January 17, 11:13 am

Obama to end eavesdropping on friendly heads of state

President Obama is also ordering an end to eavesdropping on dozens of foreign heads of state who are friends or allies  in an effort to restore trust in the intelligence community and in the the government’s ability to balance national security and privacy interests, according to an advance briefing on the speech.

And he will say he is taking steps to protect the privacy of foreigners by extending some of the protections currently given to Americans.


Vincent Bzdek
January 17, 11:17 am
  • Vincent Bzdek January 17, 11:17 am

Obama cites Paul Revere

Obama opened his speech by stressing the importance of intelligence to Americans in wartime, dating from Paul Revere to the Cold War.

“Throughout this evolution, we’ve benefited from both the Constitution and our tradition of limited government,” Obama said.

Aaron Blake
January 17, 11:17 am
  • Aaron Blake January 17, 11:17 am

Five big takeaways from the speech

Here are the major changes in U.S. policy on conducting surveillance both at home and abroad that Obama is proposing.

1) Obama has declared that U.S. spy agencies will no longer hold Americans’ phone records. As a result, the surveillance program that became the biggest Edward Snowden-related controversy will come to an end, at least as it is constructed now. This major shift will take months if not more to accomplish. In the meantime, President Obama is imposing new limits on the government’s ability to access such data.

2) Even so, Obama wants to ensure that the government can still access call records when it needs to. How is not yet clear. The White House cited options including requiring phone companies to hold onto their customers’ phone call records and grant government access under court order, or the creation of a new entity to serve as guardian of a massive call-records database.

3) Obama has ordered significant new restrictions on spying on close U.S. allies. Heads of states that are friendly with the United States will now be off-limits for electronic surveillance. White House officials said they already stopped collection on  “dozens” of such targets. Still, there are loopholes. Obama isn’t making clear who qualifies as a close ally, and the restrictions don’t apply to foreign leaders’ aides.

4) Obama is calling for the creation of a new panel to serve as public advocates in cases handled by a special surveillance court. Members of the panel would be cleared to appear before a court that has approved massive surveillance programs entirely in secret, with no input from the public or those who would be surveillance targets. Creating the new panel would require action by Congress.

5) Obama is also promising new privacy protections for foreigners, aiming to assure citizens of countries in Europe and elsewhere that they won’t be swept up in U.S. surveillance unless there is a compelling national security purpose for the United States. The new rules are to be developed in the coming months.

Greg Miller
January 17, 11:18 am
  • Greg Miller January 17, 11:18 am
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