WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is still grappling with key decisions on the future of the National Security Agency’s phone collection program and the makeup of the secret court that approved the surveillance, congressional lawmakers said Thursday following a 90-minute meeting at the White House.
Obama is expected to back tighter restrictions on foreign leader spying and also is considering a presidential commission’s recommendation to strip the NSA of its ability to store telephone records from millions of Americans. The president could announce his final decisions as early as next week.
“The president and his administration are wrestling with the issues,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and privacy advocate, said after the meeting. “It’s fair to say that the next few weeks are going to be crunch time in terms of judgments being made in both the administration and the Congress.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the meeting focused in particular on the telephone data program and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. He said that while Obama didn’t appear to have made a decision on either issue yet, he expects him to do so soon.
The president met this week with his top intelligence advisers, many of whom oppose changes to the NSA programs, and a review group appointed by Congress that is working on a report focused on the surveillance systems. Privacy advocates were meeting with senior White House staff Thursday afternoon, and technology companies have been invited to a meeting on Friday.
The president’s decisions will test how far he is willing to go in scaling back the NSA’s broad surveillance powers. A presidential commission handed him more than 40 recommendations, many of which were more sweeping than expected. However, Obama is not obligated to accept any of the panel’s proposals.
The White House indicated that whatever the president announces in the coming days may not be his final word on the matter. Obama spokesman Jay Carney said that while Obama is likely to announce some changes he wants implemented right away, “there may be some that would require further review.”
Congress is also likely to play a role in implementing some of the president’s recommendations, particularly if he makes changes to the phone collection program. Lawmakers in both parties have said they would support congressional involvement on the matter.
“With each new revelation of the scope of these programs, it’s increasingly clear that we need to take legislative action to reform some of our nation’s intelligence-gathering programs to ensure that they adequately protect Americans’ civil liberties and operate in a sensible manner,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who also attended Thursday’s White House meeting.
The presidential review group recommended not only moving storage of phone records back to the phone companies or a third party, but also mandating that the NSA obtain separate court approval for each record search. There would be exceptions in the case of national security emergencies.
It’s unclear whether Obama will ultimately back the proposal or how quickly it could be carried out if he does.
People familiar with the White House review say Obama is expected to announce steps to rein in spying on friendly foreign leaders. That includes increased oversight of the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, a classified document that ranks U.S. intelligence-gathering priorities and is used to make decisions on scrutiny of foreign leaders. The presidential review board has recommended increasing the number of policy officials who help establish those priorities, and that could result in limits on surveillance of allies.
Documents released by former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. was monitoring the communications of several friendly foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The revelations outraged Merkel as well as other leaders, and U.S. officials say the disclosures have damaged Obama’s relations around the world.
On Thursday, the senior lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee said a classified Pentagon report showed that Snowden stole approximately 1.7 million intelligence files. Most of those documents concern current military operations and could potentially jeopardize U.S. troops overseas, according to Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md.
Snowden faces espionage charges in the U.S. but has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
Last month, federal judges issued conflicting rulings on whether the NSA’s phone record collection program is legal. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of Washington ruled that the program is likely unconstitutional, calling it “Orwellian” in scale, though he didn’t order NSA to stop collecting records because of expected appeals. Eleven days later, U.S. District Judge William Pauley III in Washington declared the NSA program to be legal in dismissing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The rulings are being appealed, and the issue may wind up being reviewed by the Supreme Court.