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Obama To Announce Changes To NSA Surveillance

Jan 17, 2014
Originally published on January 17, 2014 1:39 pm

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. President Obama today is set to announce the changes he would like to make in the way the National Security Agency keeps track of Americans and foreigners. He will speak at the Justice Department, six months after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden prompted a fierce debate in this country and abroad by exposing previously secret NSA surveillance programs.

Many groups will be intently listening to this speech and different groups of people with different interests will be listening for different things. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been covering this story for months. He's in our studios. Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So the president himself has said that something needs to change here, right?

GJELTEN: He did, Steve. And he hand-picked a group of security and privacy experts to review the NSA activities, to recommend changes. We've now got those recommendations. And because the president picked the group himself, their recommendations carry a lot of weight. But that's not all he has to consider. As you say, there are many groups with stakes in this debate. Obviously the national security establishment, but also the civil libertarians, privacy advocates, business interests, the courts, Congress.

INSKEEP: And many more, many more. So you've been talking with officials here this morning. What is the president likely to say he wants to change?

GJELTEN: Well, the big issue, Steve, is the NSA's collection of our telephone records. Every call Americans make, what number they dial, how long the call lasts. Not the contents of the call, but still, that telephone metadata, as it's called, says a lot about us. So this is controversial. The NSA wants a database it can search for possible terrorist communications but the president's own review group said that program has not been all that helpful. The issue is what to do about it, and the latest we're hearing from our sources is that the president is likely to say those records should not be held by the government but rather be kept outside the government. The NSA could still get access to the database and search it, but only with a judicial finding.

INSKEEP: And we don't know exactly how this would work in the president's proposal, but let's make sure people understand the possibilities. The information would be held outside the government. What might that mean?

GJELTEN: Well, it could mean the telephone companies will hold it, it could mean a third group, some kind of special non-governmental group could hold it. We don't know yet that the president is actually going to be specific about what should happen.

INSKEEP: Okay, this is a subject that is of great concern to Americans because they're not supposed to be spied on by the National Security Agency without a court order and people felt that they were being or there was a potential for that. What about foreigners?

GJELTEN: Well, foreigners have a lot fewer protections than Americans do. And one of the things that we're going to be looking for is whether some of those privacy protections for foreigners, including for foreign leaders, get improved.

INSKEEP: Now, there's some other issues to deal with here because we were talking about the different interest groups that you mentioned, Tom Gjelten. You have reported for us this week on technology companies who have their own stake here and their own set of interests and their own questions.

GJELTEN: They're worried, Steve, that the NSA has been breaking their encryption, finding vulnerabilities in their technology and software for the purposes of surveillance and cyberwarfare even. The tech companies would like to see those activities scaled back. Another thing they'd like to see is for the NSA to be more transparent about what it demands of the tech companies, and the tech companies feel that if customers knew how rarely the NSA goes to them, they might feel reassured. Those are some of the things the techs are looking for.

INSKEEP: The companies are saying, look, we actually don't give them troves of information.

GJELTEN: Not that much.

INSKEEP: Okay, are there concerns beyond Edward Snowdon's disclosures that the president is likely to address here?

GJELTEN: Well, see, this would be an opportunity to reform the oversight of NSA surveillance, perhaps by installing a public defense lawyer in the court to represent privacy interests against whatever the NSA is arguing. That's something that we should be listening for. Another thing: Since he's going to be speaking at the Justice Department, the president might have something to say about the FBI and what national security powers it should have.

INSKEEP: Okay, Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten, speaking with us on this morning when we're expecting a speech by President Obama at the Justice Department, talking about the changes in the National Security Agency that he would like to see. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.