President Obama said Friday, “The United States is not spying on ordinary people.”

Carolyn Kaster • Associated Press,

The changes are unlikely to silence critics, such as those who protested Friday outside the Department of Justice in Washington. “We hoped for, and the Internet deserves, more” said Alex Fowler of Mozilla.

Oliviery Douliery • Abaca Press,

National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander, from left, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Attorney General Eric Holder and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., attended President Obama’s address.

Carolyn Kaster • Associated Press,

Obama sets limit on NSA powers

  • Article by: MARK LANDLER and PETER BAKER
  • New York Times
  • January 17, 2014 - 11:56 PM

– President Obama, declaring that advances in technology had made it harder “to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties,” announced carefully calculated changes to surveillance policies Friday, saying he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to telephone data, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But Obama left in place significant elements of the broad surveillance net assembled by the National Security Agency, and left the implementation of many of his changes up to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves.

In a much-anticipated speech that ranged from lofty principles to highly technical details, Obama said he would require prior court approval for the viewing of telephone data. He also said he would forbid eavesdropping on the leaders of allied countries, after the disclosure of such activities ignited a diplomatic firestorm with Germany and other friendly nations.

“America’s capabilities are unique,” Obama said. “And the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”

But Obama also delivered a stout defense of the nation’s intelligence establishment, saying that there was no evidence it had abused its power, and that many of its methods were necessary to protect Americans from a host of threats in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The president did not accept one of the most significant recommendations of his own advisory panel on surveillance practices: requiring prior court approval for so-called national security letters, which the government uses to demand information on individuals from companies. And in leaving much of the implementation up to Congress, he most likely opened the door to extremely contentious battles.

Obama made only passing reference to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor whose disclosures of classified information set off a national and international clamor over U.S. surveillance practices. Snowden’s actions, he said, ­jeopardized the nation’s defense and framed a debate that has “often shed more heat than light.”

‘How we remain true to who we are’

Still, noting his own record of opposition to intrusive surveillance and the “cautionary tale” of unchecked state spying in countries like the former East Germany, Obama acknowledged that the disclosures raised profound issues of the balance between liberty and security. “When you cut through the noise,” he said, “what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed.”

Though Obama has been weighing these changes for months, he made a final decision on judicial review for the collection of phone records only Thursday night, a senior official said, attesting to the extreme sensitivity of these issues and the competing interests at play.

At the heart of the changes will be an overhaul of a bulk data program that has swept up many millions of records of Americans’ telephone calls, though not their content. Although Obama said such collection was important to foil terrorist plots, he acknowledged it could be abused and had not been subject to an adequate public debate.

In two immediate actions, Obama said intelligence agencies would only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, rather than three. He also instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that intelligence agencies could gain access to the existing database only in an emergency or with a court order.

‘We will not apologize’

On the question of which entity will hold the storehouse of phone metadata, the president said Holder would make recommendations in 60 days. Privacy advocates have called for telecommunications providers to keep the data, though many of the companies are resisting it. Obama offered more modest protections to non-Americans, saying that the United States would extend privacy safeguards to foreigners for incidental information collected. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that people around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account.”

Obama said he would forbid eavesdropping on the leaders of allied countries, though he did not offer a list of those, and he pointedly said the United States would continue to collect information on the intentions of foreign governments. “We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective,” Obama said. “But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners.”

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