President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency on Jan. 17, 2014. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
David Jackson, USA TODAY
President Obama called Friday for ending the National Security Agency's ability to store phone data from millions of Americans, and asked Congress, the Justice Department and the intelligence community to help decide who should hold these records.
In a long-awaited speech on government surveillance policies, Obama defended bulk collections of telephone and Internet data as important tools to combat terrorism.
The president also said civil libertarians have raised legitimate worries about the potential for abuse, and that he is seeking to balance the demands of national security and with the needs of personal privacy.
"we have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals -- and our Constitution -- require," Obama said during his speech at the Justice Department.
He added, "we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies."
In the near term, Obama will modify the program to require a judicial finding every time the government seeks information from the phone database, officials said.
Obama will ask Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence community to deliver a report within 60 days on how to handle the program in the long term. The president will also consult with the relevant committees in Congress on their views.
A special committee appointed by Obama last year has recommended that telephone metadata by held by a third party, or the phone companies themselves. But some phone providers have balked at the latter idea.
The address concludes a months-long review of NSA policies, spurred by news leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden about the scope, reach, and possible abuses of spying programs.
Obama made two references to Snowden, saying at one point that "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."
The president also called on Congress to authorize "a panel of advocates from outside government" to raise possible privacy and civil liberties concerns within the special court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and approves warrants for snooping.
He will also call for new rules on surveillance of foreign leaders, an issue that has created diplomatic friction in recent months.
President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil canceled a state visit to the United States last year over news that her government had been spied upon. German Chancellor Angela Merkel protested directly to Obama about NSA activity.
Obama has defended the NSA, saying that surveillance programs are essential tools in preventing terrorist attacks.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Obama noted, government officials and citizens demanded that intelligence agencies improve their performance in order to break up future plots.
"Laboring in obscurity, often unable to discuss their work even with family and friends, they know that if another 9/11 or massive cyber-attack occurs, they will be asked, by Congress and the media, why they failed to connect the dots," Obama said.
The president also said, "the men and women of the intelligence community -- including the NSA -- consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people."
The president's NSA speech will not end the privacy/security debate, however.
For one thing, Congress must sign off on many of Obama's proposals.
The surveillance programs are also the subjects of multiple lawsuits, and the security-privacy issue could wind up before the Supreme Court.