WASHINGTON — Tightening the reins on the nation’s sweeping surveillance operations, President Barack Obama on Friday ordered new limits on the way intelligence officials access phone records from hundreds of millions of Americans — and moved toward eventually stripping the massive data collection from the government’s hands.
But Obama’s highly anticipated intelligence recommendations left many key details unresolved, most notably who might take over as keeper of the vast trove of U.S. phone records. Final decisions on that and other major questions were left to the Justice Department and to intelligence agencies that oppose changing surveillance operations, and to a Congress that is divided about the future of the programs.
If fully implemented, Obama’s proposals would mark the most significant changes to the surveillance laws that were passed in reaction to the Sept. 11, 2011, terror attacks. While Obama has said he has welcomed the recent spying debate, it’s unlikely to have happened without the national and international backlash following a wave of leaks from former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden.
For now, the phone records will continue to reside with the government. But the NSA will need to get approval from the secretive Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court each time it wants to access the data, a more cumbersome process than currently required. Exceptions will be made in the event of a national security emergency, officials said.
Responding to outrage overseas, Obama pledged on Friday to curb spying on friendly allied leaders and to extend some privacy protections to foreign citizens. The proposals appeared to ease some anger in Germany, which had been particularly incensed by revelations that the NSA had monitored the communications of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Despite the firestorm at home and abroad, Obama robustly defended the intelligence community’s role in keeping the nation safe. But he said the U.S. had a “special obligation” to ensure that its muscular spying apparatus was not trampling on civil liberties.