President Barack Obama will announce steps that could transform the way the government keeps the vast amount of telephone data collected through its surveillance activities, NBC News has learned. The president is not expected to advocate where the metadata should be kept, only that the federal government should not hold it and that Congress be involved in the final decision.
Obama will also announce he is taking steps to modify the data collection program to require that a judicial process be required before the data is accessed.
The Friday announcement is part of a highly anticipated speech that comes months after one of the largest intelligence leaks in U.S. history shook national confidence in the federal government. In announcing come curbs to the controversial program, the president is striking a middle ground in a debate over privacy and security that has raged for much of the past year.
Both Democrats, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Republicans, such as Sen. Rand Paul, have proposed bills to put the National Security Agency on a tighter leash in the aftermath of the security breach perpetrated by an NSA contractor.
Among Edward Snowden’s disclosures were documents indicating that the NSA had a wide net capturing email address books and cell phone location records. Revelations also included that the U.S. was spying on German Chancellor Angel Merkel and other world leaders. The Snowden leaks sparked a furor in Congress, among U.S. technology firms, and among allies abroad.
The NSA debate has muddled the usual partisan divide with some Democrats, led by Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein defending the NSA, while other Democrats such as Leahy allied with conservatives and libertarians to demand that the agency be brought under tighter restraints.
According to leaked details from the White House, the president is expected to:
- Reject calls to split the NSA from the nation’s cyber warfare command, which critics argue concentrates power and limits oversight.
- Support the appointment of an independent privacy advocate to argue before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA.
- Advocate greater protections for non-citizens, geared especially for mending fences with European allies.
It’s not yet clear how many NSA procedures Obama will change unilaterally and how many would require Congress to pass legislation.
Last month the five law professors and intelligence experts whom Obama appointed to a review panel issued a report urging Obama to consider 46 policy changes. Some proposals from the group include:
- The director of the National Security Agency – currently Army Gen. Keith Alexander – be confirmed by the Senate with civilians eligible to hold that position. Since NSA was created in 1952, it has always been headed by a military officer.
- That Congress change the way judges are appointed to the FISA court. Under current law, the chief justice appoints all 11 members of the court. The panel said the appointment power ought to be divided among all nine Supreme Court justices.
Leahy told MSNBC’s Daily Rundown Thursday that he thinks Obama will support the idea of a public advocate to participate in warrant requests before the court. “I think it would improve the credibility of the court,” Leahy said.
Leahy and other NSA critics stress the fact that the agency’s collection of telecommunications metadata hasn’t stopped any single terrorist attack. But in testimony to the Judiciary Committee this week, one member of Obama’s panel, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, pushed back on that point.
“It is absolutely true” that NSA collection of metadata “has not by itself disrupted, prevented attacks in the United States.” But “it only needs to be successful once to be invaluable. One of the ways that I think about this is, many of us have never suffered a fire in our homes, but we still have homeowners insurance to protect against that.”
NBC’s Chuck Todd and Kristen Welker contributed.