Pres. Obama: New oversight but no change to spying power

President Barack Obama arrives to speak, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
August 9, 2013 12:10:52 PM PDT
President Barack Obama made clear Friday that he has no intention of stopping the daily collection of phone records from millions of Americans, but his administration promised more oversight of how such programs are carried out.

Obama planned an afternoon news conference to try to quell anger over a spying program that has been kept secret for years and that the administration falsely denied ever existed.

The administration planned to release more information Friday about how it gathers intelligence at home and abroad, plus the legal rationale underpinning the bulk collection of phone records without individual warrants. That program was authorized under the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after 9/11.

The National Security Agency says phone records are the only things it collects in bulk under that law. But officials have left open the possibility that it could create similar databases of people's credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.

The changes Obama endorsed include: formation of an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers; assigning a privacy officer at the National Security Agency; and the creation of an independent attorney to argue against the government before the nation's surveillance court.

All those new positions would carry out most of their duties in secret.

Senior administration officials and described the proposals to reporters in a telephone briefing arranged by the White House before Obama's news conference. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted by name.

Obama's news conference comes at the end of a summer that forced the administration into an unexpected debate over domestic surveillance. The debate began when former government contract systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing NSA programs that store years of phone records on every American.

That revelation prompted the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after 9/11 attacks.

Obama has found Congress surprisingly hostile to those powers since they were made public. The telephone program narrowly survived a 217-205 vote in the House that would have dismantled it. An unusual coalition of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats pose a challenge to Obama, who aligned himself with establishment Republicans and Congress' pro-security lawmakers.

The administration says it only looks at the phone records when investigating suspected terrorists. But testimony before Congress revealed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analyzed by the government.

When the NSA identifies a suspect, it can conduct three "hops." That means analysts can look not just at the suspect's phone records, but also the records of everyone he calls, everyone who calls those people and everyone who calls those people.

If the average person called 40 unique people, three-hop analysis would allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.

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