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Obama to Call for Overhaul of N.S.A.'s Phone Data Collection Program

President Obama will require intelligence agencies to obtain permission from a secret court before tapping into a vast trove of telephone data, but he will leave the data in the hands of the government for now, an administration official said.

Mr. Obama, in a much-anticipated speech on Friday morning, plans to announce that he is pulling back the government's wide net of surveillance at home and abroad, staking out a middle ground between the far-reaching proposals of his own advisers and the concerns of the nation's intelligence agencies.

At the heart of the changes, prompted by the disclosure of surveillance practices by a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, will be an overhaul of a bulk data collection program that has swept up many millions of records of Americans' telephone calls, though not their content.

"The president will say that he is ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 telephone metadata program as it currently exists and move to a program that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata," said an official, who insisted on anonymity to preview a part of the 11 a.m. speech. The reference was to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to compel companies to turn over business records for counterterrorism purposes.

"The president believes that the 215 program addresses important capabilities that allow us to counter terrorism, but that we can and should be able to preserve those capabilities while addressing the privacy and civil liberties concerns that are raised by the government holding this metadata," the official added.

A review panel appointed by Mr. Obama recommended that the government no longer be allowed to hold the data and that instead it be left in the hands of the telecommunications firms or an independent third party and tapped only with permission of a judge. The telecommunications firms, however, objected to being the repository of the information and no independent third party currently exists, so Mr. Obama will call for further study to decide what to do with the data.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and intelligence agencies will be assigned to report back to Mr. Obama by March 28 on how the program can continue "without the government holding the metadata," said the administration official. At the same time, Mr. Obama will consult with Congress to seek its views. Any change could require legislation.

In the 11 a.m. address, to an audience at the Justice Department, Mr. Obama is also expected to outline a plan to tighten privacy safeguards for foreigners, particularly heads of state, and propose a new public advocate to represent privacy concerns at a secret intelligence court.

The president, aides said, will fuse broad principles with specific proposals - all in the service of his refrain that just because the government can do something, it does not mean it should. He will address an audience that includes Justice Department lawyers, intelligence officials, and civil liberties advocates, though his message will be watched globally.

The White House has been tight-lipped about the specific proposals that Mr. Obama will make. But broad descriptions have begun to circulate, as the president has met with lawmakers and intelligence officials to brief them. Some of the tough decisions are likely to be left to Congress, which must sign off on many of Mr. Obama's changes.

In response to the furor generated by Mr. Snowden's disclosures, Mr. Obama commissioned a panel of presidential advisers who reviewed the N.S.A.'s surveillance practices and urged him to end the systematic collection of logs of all Americans' phone calls. It said the government should keep those in private hands, "for queries and data mining" only by court order.

The panel, which included five intelligence and legal experts, recommended in a 300-page report that any operation to spy on foreign leaders pass a rigorous test that weighs the potential economic or diplomatic costs if the operation becomes public.To prevent harm to the credibility of American technology firms, it also recommended that the N.S.A. stop weakening encryption technologies for computer networks and using flaws in common computer programs as a basis for mounting cyberattacks.

By embracing some of these proposals, like stricter standards on surveillance of foreign leaders, while brushing aside others, like storing bulk telephone data with private companies, the president is balancing sometimes conflicting demands from Silicon Valley, the intelligence agencies and the pinstriped world of diplomacy.

Mr. Obama has already rejected one recommendation: splitting command of the N.S.A., which conducts surveillance, from the United States Cyber Command, the Pentagon's cyberwarfare unit, to avoid concentrating too much power in the hands of a single individual.

The speech has been weeks in the making, aides said, after a long Christmas break in Hawaii during which Mr. Obama weighed the 46 recommendations made by his panel of advisers.

For a president trained as a constitutional lawyer, who began his career as a critic of government spying, the speech is likely to lay bare the evolution of Mr. Obama's thinking, after five years in which he has absorbed a stream of threats in his presidential daily briefing.

[Source: By Mark Landler and Peter Baker, International New York Times, 17Jan14]

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