President Barack Obama on Friday promised a thorough review of the National Security Agency’s domestic and global surveillance activities, and did not rule out the option of developing a new private sector architecture for the storage of telephone metadata under the controversial Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
Speaking to reporters during the last officially scheduled press conference of the year, Obama said he would make a “pretty definitive” policy statement on the future of the surveillance programs in January. And while he said the administration believes the right balance has been struck between the privacy rights and civil liberties of ordinary Americans and the government’s need to collect actionable intelligence on potential terrorist threats, there remains a perception that abuses are possible because of NSA’s massive collection and storage of the data.
“We believed we had scrubbed these programs and struck an appropriate balance,” Obama said, adding there remains no evidence of the program being abused. But it is clear, Obama said, that “whatever benefits the configuration of this particular program may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse.”
Although he did not provide specific details on what, if any, technical changes he may call for in January, the president offered a clear signal that while the programs may survive, they could easily look and work differently. “There may be another way of skinning the cat,” Obama said.
One change called for by the White House review panel, headed by former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke and former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell, is to have private telephone and Internet companies store and maintain the metadata instead of allowing NSA to collect it in a massive dragnet operation and then store it for years. NSA has resisted this particular approach because officials fear the process would be too cumbersome and time consuming to stop terrorist plots that may be in their final stages.
But Obama left the option open to a potential public-private partnership in which a new architecture would be developed that would enable near real-time access and querying of the data by NSA. The president, however, acknowledged such a system may have to be built from the ground up and would probably cost the government money to develop.
“It is possible, for example, that some of the same information that the intelligence community feels is required to keep people safe can be obtained by having the private phone companies keep these records longer and to create some mechanism where they could be accessed in an effective fashion,” Obama said. “That might cost more, there might need to be different checks on how those requests are made, there may be technological solutions that have to be found to do that.”
“I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around,” Obama said. “But I also recognize that as technology has changed and people can start running algorithms and programs that map out all of the information that we’re downloading on a daily basis into our telephones and our computers, that we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence.”