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Obama to call for significant changes in collection of phone records of U.S. citizens

President Obama will call Friday for significant changes to the way the National Security Agency collects and uses telephone records of U.S. citizens, moving to transition away from government control of the information and requiring authorities to obtain a court order to get access to it, a White House official said.

After more than six months of controversy over U.S. surveillance policies, Obama will speak at the U.S. Department of Justice to outline how he intends to restore trust in the National Security Agency and in the government's ability to balance national security and privacy interests.

The president plans to say that the NSA's metadata program remains a critical tool for U.S. intelligence agencies to root out and prevent terrorist activities, said the administration official, who spoke in advance of the speech on condition of anonymity.

But Obama also will say that the United States should be able to "preserve those capabilities while addressing the privacy and civil liberties concerns" raised by recent disclosures in the media about government control of the metadata.

Obama has asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and intelligence officials to deliver a plan to transition away from government control of the information before March 28, when the program is due to be reauthorized by a secret court, the official said. Obama also will consult Congress for additional input, asking lawmakers to deliberate on the appropriate boundaries for the phone records collection.

Current and former officials familiar with Obama's plans said Thursday that the president will authorize some new privacy protections for foreigners whose data are collected by the NSA and will propose the establishment of a public advocate to represent privacy interests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The president's speech comes after months of revelations about the breadth and secrecy of the NSA's surveillance activities, based on hundreds of thousands of documents stolen by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. U.S. officials have said Snowden stole up to 1.7 million documents, many of which he has turned over to reporters. New revelations based on the document are expected to continue this year.

The White House has sought to tamp down concerns from foreign leaders, privacy and civil liberties activists and the tech industry about the NSA's activities. The NSA's collection of data on virtually all Americans' phone records is part of a program that has generated perhaps more controversy than any other since it was disclosed in June.

Intelligence officials have said the program is a critical tool in their efforts to prevent attacks on the United States. Some analysts have argued that, although a review panel appointed by the White House recommended that the NSA shift control of phone data to phone companies or a private third party, it found no violation of the law by the agency.

"We're not talking about trying to fix a massive breach of Americans' privacy," said Gary Schmitt, a resident scholar and national security expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "When you begin with that, then you can make judgments about how important the current collection system is for national security. But you shouldn't do it under this shadow of a Big Brother that doesn't exist."

To civil liberties groups and privacy advocates, disclosures about the NSA have revealed a government that has leveraged new technologies to reach further into Americans' privacy than ever before. Many are hoping that whatever changes Obama announces will be more than cosmetic.

"We're looking to the president to make very bold statements about reclaiming privacy," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Richardson said that, although a number of ideas for reform have been floated by the White House review group and others, Obama's decision on the NSA's bulk collection is the issue he will be measured on -- "not just by the ACLU, but by history."

The NSA's harvesting of phone data began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was placed under court supervision in 2006. The program collects metadata, or phone numbers dialed and call lengths and times, but not call content. Analysts are supposed to access the data only for the purpose of seeking leads in counterterrorism investigations.

The program's disclosure in June marked the start of a string of revelations about U.S. surveillance policies, most of them based on leaks from Snowden.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in November found that nearly 70 percent of respondents said the NSA's surveillance of telephone call records and Internet traffic intrudes on some Americans' privacy rights.

[Source: By David Nakamura and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, 17Jan14]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
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