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Obama hints at changing NSA's phone records collection

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, December 20, 2013 - 5:34 pm

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama suggested Friday that he may be ready to make some changes in the bulk collection of Americans' phone records to allay the public's concern about privacy.

Obama said he has not yet made any decisions about the National Security Agency's collection programs. But among the dozens of recommendations he's considering, he hinted that he may strip the NSA of its ability to store data in its own facilities and instead shift that storage to the private phone companies.

"There may be another way of skinning the cat," Obama said during a news conference.

His hint at concessions came the same week a federal judge declared the bulk collection program unconstitutional and a presidential advisory panel that included intelligence experts suggested reforms. Both the judge and the panel said there was little evidence any terror plot had been thwarted by the program, known as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

"There are ways we can do it, potentially, that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances — that there's sufficient oversight and sufficient transparency," Obama said. Programs like the bulk collection of phone records "could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse."

The advisory panel offered 46 recommendations in the wake of public outrage over the government's vast surveillance. The panel recommended that the phone records be stored at the private phone companies, but it also called for the government to obtain permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to access them.

He did not address that option, which means the government could still have unfettered access to the data. He continued to defend the need for this program for national security. Obama can reject, accept or amend any of the recommendations, and he only spoke generally about the possible need for some changes, but not how much, if at all, the programs would change.

The federal judge who declared the NSA's vast phone data collection unconstitutional, Richard Leon, called the NSA's operation "Orwellian" in scale and said there was little evidence that its gargantuan inventory of phone records from American users had prevented a terrorist attack. However, he stopped his ruling Monday from taking effect, pending a likely government appeal.

Obama offered a broad defense of the surveillance programs revealed over the past six months after a former NSA systems analyst disclosed classified materials. He insisted there has been no abuse of this information collected and stored on Americans. But he said he understands that the public is concerned about privacy. He said he would make an announcement about these programs in January.

"The question we're going to have to ask is, 'Can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that in fact the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing?'" Obama said.

"I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around," he said, adding that he understands the potential for abuse can change as technologies evolve. "We may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I'm going to be working very hard on doing that."

The bulk collection program sweeps up what's known as metadata for every phone call made in the U.S. It collects the number called, the number from which the call is made and the duration and time of the call.