Today at the Justice Department President Barack Obama delivered a speech announcing that the United States will stop collecting and storing phone metadata, even as he defended the programs run by the National Security Alliance. In a rather lengthy speech covering a number of issues related to the NSA's spying programs, the president emphasized that U.S. intelligence agencies have not broken the law and have not spied on the calls or e-mails of "ordinary people."
"In an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic, the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people," President Obama said. "They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails."
President Obama also acknowledged former NSA contractor Snowden by name but said he would not "dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations."
"If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy," President Obama said. "Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come."
Of course had Edward Snowden not disclosed any of this information, the world would have no idea still of the scope and the scale of the NSA's broad surveillance activities related to mobile phones, the Internet, or even their activities in online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life.
The president proposed a number of changes to the program - most notably that information should be taken out of the NSA's hands and stored somewhere else - possibly by the private sector - though for now it will remain in the NSA's hands. The NSA would also have to go to the FISA Court each time it wanted to access the data.
The president will ask Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials for recommendations on how best to maintain the data, according to senior administration officials. He will also ask Congress to create a panel of public advocates that will monitor the FISA court process.
Companies that have been barred from revealing information related to requests for access by government agencies and law enforcement will be allowed to release more details, though we imagine these details will be vague so as to not hamper ongoing investigations and surveillance.
Holder and intelligence officials will have until March 28 to come up with a detailed plan to keep data in private hands, officials said. In the meantime, the president said that he would "immediately" require judicial approval before the government-stored data can be accessed.
The president's plan also adds a new requirement for surveillance: the government can no longer access phone and email records more than two people removed from an individual officials are monitoring.
The president will not allow the NSA to spy on foreign leaders who are considered allies and friends, unless there is a "compelling national security purpose" of some sort of urgency.
President Obama will appoint a senior diplomat from the State Department to repair relations abroad with foreign leaders who are upset with U.S. spying activities abroad, and he will ask top aide John Podesta to lead a data and privacy review, according to officials.
The changes to the NSA's activities are in line with recommendations made last month by a five-member outside group he appointed to conduct a broad review of the government’s surveillance efforts.
A transcript of the president's speech can be found on Politico.