President Obama will announce on Friday an overhaul of the controversial National Security Agency surveillance program that collects the telephone records of American citizens, according to a senior administration official.
Speaking at the Justice Department, Obama will say he is ordering an end to the telephone metadata “as it currently exists, and move to a program that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk meta-data,” the official said.
But the president will not offer a specific proposal outlining who would store the data in the future. A White House advisory panel suggested in recommendations released last month that the records be maintained by telephone companies or a third party. But companies have been resistant to that idea, fearful that it could sour their relationships with customers and prove expensive.
Obama will instead announce that he has asked Attorney General Eric Holder and members of the intelligence community to find a way to preserve the capabilities of the program without the government holding the metadata, according to the official.
“At the same time, he will consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views,” the official added.
The president hopes to make a decision on the metadata storage before March 28, when the program comes up for reauthorization.
The move comes amid pressure from foreign leaders, Congress and the tech industry to curb the wide-ranging surveillance activities of the agency and lay to rest fears the United States has created an Orwellian spying regime.
But it's unclear whether the president’s proposal will do much to soothe the concerns of privacy advocates, who argue that maintaining the program in some form would do little to satisfy concerns about snooping.
“This shifting of records … would not solve the problem; it would just outsource it and possibly create new ones,” Liza Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said.
Having the phone companies or third parties hold the data, which can be accessed by the government as it pleases, would allow the government to “essentially launder” its surveillance activities, she said.
Advocates said the president’s proposed course would mean a greater role for Congress in reforming the surveillance programs.
“If he does fail to take a stand … it will become Congress’s responsibility,” said Kevin Bankston, policy director at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.
“If he does punt to Congress, there are many standing ready” to take on surveillance reform, he said, pointing to bills like the USA Freedom Act by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).
Privacy groups are optimistic bills like the USA Freedom Act could move through Congress this year.
“It looks like we have enough support to pass it in the House,” Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, said.
Many lawmakers would welcome the opportunity for an expanded role in the reform effort.
“We’ve got to be involved,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, which has been heavily involved in oversight of the surveillance regime. “That’s the whole idea of these revelations is that some of this could’ve been excluded or not have happened.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) agreed, saying, “It’s never a bad thing to have more folks in the decision-making process.”
But Scott also said Obama “ought to show us that path forward, which would determine what should be the ultimate path.”
Obama has expressed interest in some of the other recommendations put forward by his review group, including the addition of a “civil liberties” advocate at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to challenge government requests for spying programs.
But privacy advocates dismiss that recommendation as window dressing.
“Adding one more person into this secret court to argue in secret about secret programs is not going to fundamentally change” the surveillance programs, Richardson said.
The president is expected to announce new protections for foreign citizens’ privacy, which could alleviate the criticism that has been leveled at the U.S. since documents released by Snowden revealed American officials had snooped on world leaders and millions of people abroad.
Obama is likely to call for new measures strengthening the country’s security clearance system to prevent another Snowden from leaking sensitive documents. The president’s advisory group said more frequent and tougher checks would help reduce the risk of “insider threats” who could steal details about the government’s spying.
Democrats in Congress still largely support the president, even though they’ve been surprised about his tendency to continue many of the same surveillance efforts he campaigned against before entering the White House. That fondness could help him build support for proposals that need legislative action.
But it also could backfire, if lawmakers become truly alienated by the president.
“I’ll cut him a little slack,” Conyers told The Hill. “I hope I sound this generous to him when we talk after his speech.”