VIDEO: Obama Orders 'Concrete and Substantial Reforms' to NSA Data Collection
President Obama this morning announced that he is ordering changes to the way the NSA gathers massive amounts of cell phone records.
He unveiled what he called "a series of concrete and substantial reforms that my administration intends to adopt administratively or will seek to codify with Congress."
Obama said he will end "the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215." He reiterated that the NSA cannot see or hear the content of a phone call, but can only see the phone numbers and length of time of the call.
The president explained that the data collection was spawned by a gap that was discovered after 9/11.
"One of the 9/11 hijackers – Khalid al-Mihdhar – made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States. 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," said Obama.
He said the new proposed reforms will seek to "preserve the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata."
"Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of 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 a true emergency," he said.
The president sought to assure concerned citizens that the government is not watching them or spying on their communications.
"The new presidential directive that I have issued today will clearly prescribe what we do, and do not do, when it comes to our overseas surveillance. 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 emails or phone calls of ordinary people. I have 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, race, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. And we do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies or U.S. commercial sectors," said Obama.
Obama also made mention of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who secretly revealed to reporters the massive surveillance capabilities before fleeing to Russia.
"I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations. I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. 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. 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."
You can read the transcript of the remarks here. Watch the full speech in the clips below: