Obama To Call for Overhaul of NSA Metadata Collection

by Andrew C. McCarthy

The New York Times has been briefed on President Obama’s much anticipated speech about government surveillance policies, to be delivered later this morning. The Times reports:

President Obama will require intelligence agencies to obtain permission from a secret court before tapping into a vast trove of telephone data, but he will leave the data in the hands of the government for now, an administration official said.

Mr. Obama, in a much-anticipated speech on Friday morning, plans to announce that he is pulling back the government’s wide net of surveillance at home and abroad, staking out a middle ground between the far-reaching proposals of his own advisers and the concerns of the nation’s intelligence agencies.

At the heart of the changes, prompted by the disclosure of surveillance practices by a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, will be an overhaul of a bulk data collection program that has swept up many millions of records of Americans’ telephone calls, though not their content.

“The president will say that he is ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 telephone metadata program as it currently exists and move to a program that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata,” said an official, who insisted on anonymity to preview a part of the 11 a.m. speech. The reference was to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to compel companies to turn over business records for counterterrorism purposes.

The report elaborates that Obama will direct the Justice Department and the intelligence community to report back to him by March 28 on the question of how the program can be continued without the government itself serving as the repository of the data. The telecoms object to taking on this obligation, the civil libertarians object to the government holding the data (and, indeed, to its being collected in the first place), and the intelligence community maintains that the government must be the repository if the program is to work.

Expect delay on this, with the tough calls punted to Congress. It is entirely appropriate that this should be settled by legislation, but the controversy will still center on how the executive branch – which has independent constitutional authority to conduct surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes – exploits whatever Congress designs.