President Obama has decided that the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection program is valuable as a counterterrorism tool, unnamed government officials told the Washington Post on Thursday.
Obama is expected to announce very few limits on the NSA’s data collection programs at an address planned for Friday, officials told the paper.
The programs have been fodder for much public debate about broad government surveillance, both foreign and domestic, since classified documents detailing the programs were made public by former security contractor Edward Snowden.
A court order first published by The Guardian newspaper last June revealed the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court (FISA court) ordered Verizon, one of the country’s largest telcom companies, to hand over customer telephone records. Those records contained information about phone calls placed by all Verizon customers, including numbers called, length of call and, in some cases, personal customer information such as names and credit card numbers.
Government security officials and politicians have argued that the bulk data collection programs have played a crucial role in tracking known terrorists to individuals who may otherwise not be on the radar of intelligence agencies. But a review panel convened by President Obama found in December that the program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that data collected by the program “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner” using other court orders.
Retired general Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA, urged Obama to discard the panel’s recommendations in an interview with USA Today earlier this month.
“They may not poll well right now,” Hayden said, referring to public opinion of the bulk collection program. “They’ll poll damn well after the next attack, alright?”
Despite reports to the contrary, Hayden argued that the programs had not been abused, and that changing the way the programs operate would not solve any problems.
In some ways, Obama seems to agree. Before the panel review report was made public, the White House announced it would not consider one recommendation encouraging Obama to divide the NSA’s surveillance programs from other cyber command operations.
On other issues, Obama seems poised to call on Congress to determine what limitations should be enforced on NSA spy programs.