White House officials say President Barack Obama is set to end government control of its massive collection of records about phone calls Americans make and require judicial approval to search the data.
Obama aides say the president will call Friday for the government to move away from controlling the records by March 28, the date on which a secret surveillance court would have to reauthorize the program. The records would then be held in the private sector, although it was not immediately clear by whom.
The American leader is preparing for a long-awaited speech on reforms of the vast surveillance programs conducted by the clandestine National Security Agency. The speech on Friday at 11:00 am / 1600 UTC follows months of disclosures about NSA spying by former national security contractor Edward Snowden. The NSA says he stole 1.7 million documents before fleeing to asylum in Russia.
The NSA now collects millions of records about the calls Americans make — the number called, and the dates and lengths of the calls, but not the content.
Review panel recommendations
During the speech at the Department of Justice, the president will address 46 recommendations of a special review panel, including those aimed at imposing more accountability and transparency.
Obama announced the comprehensive review in August, in the wake of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The president stressed his responsibility as commander-in-chief to safeguard the security of Americans, but recognized escalating public concerns about how the government goes about using signals intelligence.
Obama also said he was mindful of how the issue is viewed overseas.
"Because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation, it’s the way we do it — with open debate and democratic process," he said. "In other words, it’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well."
Obama has met with technology industry CEOs, civil liberties experts and government officials and consulted with Congress. Reforms would require congressional action.
There have been court rulings with judges issuing opposing statements on NSA activities, including the collection of phone records. Experts predict the issue is certain to reach the Supreme Court.
A member of the review panel, Cass Sunstein, told Congress that the group aimed to ensure that the U.S. intelligence community can continue to do what it needs to do to protect national security.
"Not one of the 46 recommendations in our report, in our view, compromise or jeopardize that ability in any way," said Sunstein.
White House press secretary Jay Carney cautioned the media against making any presumptions about what Obama may say.
Carney said the president has always recognized the validity of the debate sparked by the revelation of U.S. surveillance activities.
"The debates that those disclosures sparked were legitimate," said Carney.
Robinson Interview with Matthew Aid
Matthew Aid, intelligence historian and author of a book about the National Security Agency, says indications are that not everyone will be happy with what Obama lays out.
"There is a lot of concern that he is going to try to straddle the wall, try to please the critics of the National Security Agency and at the same time make nice with the U.S. intelligence community, and I don't think you can do it," said Aid.
Obama, and the intelligence community itself, also face pressure from lawmakers to ensure accountability.
According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, a U.S. government funding bill directs the NSA to disclose the number of records it collects over a five-year period and report to key House and Senate committees within 90 days.
"I believe strongly that we must impose stronger limits on government surveillance powers and I am confident that most Vermonters agree with me," said Democratic Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I believe that most Americans agree with me. Having said that, we want to do it right."
Debate continues over the extent to which NSA surveillance methods have actually prevented terrorist attacks. The presidential panel said it "was not essential to preventing attacks," a finding supported by a separate study by the Washington-based New America Foundation.
Former CIA deputy director Mike Morell said the bulk data program, known as Section 215 in U.S. law, was not as useful as one aimed at foreigners, but still had value.
"It is absolutely true that the 215 program has not played a significant role in disrupting any attacks to this point. That is a different statement than saying the program is not important," said Morell.
Morell said "it turned out be wrong" that existing oversight over the bulk phone data program would succeed in maintaining the public trust.
Polls in recent months have shown a majority of Americans believe existing laws are inadequate when it comes to oversight of NSA methods.
"The latest polling that I have seen indicates that the public continues to lose confidence, especially for those who fear or are concerned about their privacy," said intelligence historian Aid.
Globally, Obama's remarks will be carefully assessed because of the controversy over NSA eavesdropping — revealed by Snowden leaks — on phone calls of key leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Among 46 recommendations, the review panel called for high-level approval of sensitive intelligence requirements, including identifying "uses and limits" of surveillance of foreign leaders.
Ken Bredemeier also contributed to this report