As it happened: Obama's remarks on NSA review

Key Points

  • US President Barack Obama has given a speech describing his plans to reshape the National Security Agency's electronic spying practices
  • Under the reform, the NSA will only collect data on phone calls two steps removed from a phone number associated with a terrorist organisation
  • The phone database can only be queried after a "judicial finding", and the NSA will no longer hold bulk telephone data
  • The curbs to the NSA's authority come after a series of leaks about its spying by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden
  • All times Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5)

    Welcome to the BBC's live coverage of President Barack Obama's remarks regarding changes to National Security Agency's electronic spying operations.

    Mr Obama is expected to order the NSA to stop storing data from Americans' phones, after a series of leaks about intelligence gathering. Recent revelations claim that US agencies have collected and stored almost 200 million text messages every day across the globe.


    Mr Obama is expected to begin his remarks at the justice department at 11:00 Washington time (16:00 GMT).

    1037: Frank Gardner BBC security correspondent

    The fact that the president is making this speech, effectively as a result of the biggest intelligence leak in recent history, is remarkable.

    Will it address the public's fundamental concern (namely that the government has too much access to citizens' private communications)? No.

    This is more about the mechanics of government eavesdropping than the principle. Changing who has storage custody of trillions of bytes of metadata will not change the basic fact that our personal communications are likely to continue to be intercepted and monitored.

    1047: RedTeamRedQueen

    tweets: Prediction: #POTUS #NSA speech will go long on blame, short on action. No hope for change from the Punter, not Commander, in Chief... Alas.

    1100: Mark Mardell BBC North America editor

    Prof John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA, tells the BBC Mr Obama will likely be conservative in his proposals.

    "The danger here is that we could take steps which, if not carefully carried out, could limit the flexibility, agility and speed with which we can process intelligence material in order to disrupt terrorist plots and activity," Mr McLaughlin says. "That's the danger."


    White House spokesman Jay Carney has described the aim of Mr Obama's speech as making intelligence activities "more transparent".

    It will "give the public more confidence about the problems and the oversight of the programmes".

    1102: Mark Mardell BBC North America editor

    Obama may reveal more as he speaks, but it doesn't feel as if this will satisfy critics from the civil liberties groups. The White House is touting this as the most significant reform of surveillance since Obama took office. The NSA's huge data trawl will end in its current form.

    1102: Mark Mardell BBC North America editor

    That's the headline - any actual changes seem a bit fuzzy and pushed into the future. The government will no longer hold the material but the attorney general and the NSA itself are given 60 days to put flesh on the bones of a new plan.

    Congress will be involved too. During the 60 days, all requests will need judicial review. The government will only be able to go 'two hops' from the immediate inquiry. The US will end spying on friendly world leaders.


    Mr Obama commissioned a review panel following revelations of NSA surveillance practices last year. He is expected to announce the approval of a number of recommendations made by the panel.

    Senior officials tell the US media the centrepiece of the reforms will be the order to stop the NSA from storing information about Americans' phone calls.

    Storage of the data will instead fall to firms or another third party where it can be queried under limited conditions.


    Mr Obama is also expected to approve the creation of a public advocate position at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), where government agencies request permission for mass spying programmes.

    Currently, only the US government is represented in front of that court.


    Mr Obama is also expected to extend privacy protections for foreigners, increase oversight of how the US monitors foreign leaders, and limit how long some data can be stored.

    The announcement follows revelations in 2012 the US spied on the communications of several foreign allies, including monitoring the personal mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


    Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published many of the NSA documents leaked by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, tells Al Jazeera America that Mr Obama is not proposing meaningful reform.

    "It's really just basically a PR gesture, a way to calm the public and to make them think there's reform when in reality there really won't be," he says.

    "And I think that if the public, at this point, has heard enough about what the NSA does and how invasive it is, that they're going to need more than just a pretty speech from President Obama to feel as though their concerns have been addressed."

    1108: Mark Mardell BBC North America editor

    President Obama has issued a new directive ordering intelligence services to respect privacy and civil liberties as "integral considerations" when collecting information. He argues the US must continue collecting data "in bulk" but says there should be new limits on its use.

    1108: Mark Mardell BBC North America editor

    In particular, intelligence should not be used to suppress dissent or criticism and foreigners should be treated with the same "dignity and respect" as US citizens. Personal information should be stored securely and there should be limits set on sharing it.

    1110: Mark Mardell BBC North America editor

    Most of the new order to the NSA sets out broad principles, not how to achieve them, and leaves much up to the judgment of the intelligence services themselves.

    1113: Mother Jones magazine

    tweets: In a few minutes, President Obama is going to piss off basically everybody.

    1111: Bradley Bannon

    tweets: Does anyone actually believe the #NSA will be constrained in fact by any theoretical policy that a president publicly announces?


    In the audience at the justice department are Attorney General Eric Holder, Senators Pat Leahy and Richard Blumenthal, NSA Director Gen Keith Alexander, and others. Vivaldi's Summer violin concerto plays over the public address system while they await the president.


    Mr Obama is walking out to the podium to begin his remarks.


    Mr Obama says the US has been spying since its independence from Great Britain. For example, Paul Revere reported back information on possible raids against the US by the British.


    He says the rise of the Iron Curtain and the proliferation of nuclear weapons only increased the need for sustained intelligence gathering.


    The US has benefitted from both our constitution and traditions of limited government, Mr Obama says.


    East Germany offers a cautionary tale of persecution against citizens and what they said in their own homes, he adds.


    Mr Obama says the US too has been guilty of intelligence abuses, referring to the FBI's domestic surveillance operations of the 1960s and 1970s.


    Globalisation and the internet make threats more acute as technology erases borders, he says.

    1119: Paul Weiskel

    tweets: #Obama's justification for #NSA spying: "but Paul Revere did it first!"

    1119: Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker

    tweets: Programing note: nothing you're about to hear would have happened absent Edward Snowden's actions.


    Mr Obama: While few doubt the legitimacy of spying on hostile states, individuals acting on their own is a new threat.


    "We were shaken by the signs we had missed" prior to the 9/11 attacks, Mr Obama says.


    These signals intelligence efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives, not just in the United States but around the globe, Mr Obama says. But the risk of government overreach has also become more pronounced.


    Mr Obama says he was critical of warrantless wiretaps while he was a senator.


    Technical advances mean that routine communications are within reach, at a time when more of our lives are digital, Mr Obama says.


    Meanwhile, bulk data storage allows for the "potential of abuse", he says.


    The whole point of intelligence is to obtain information not publically available, Mr Obama says.

    1125: National Review's Charles CW Cooke

    tweets: I would love to go back to 2007/8, show early Obama backers this speech, and then collate their reactions in a video.


    Mr Obama says there is an inevitable bias among authorities who are responsible for national security to collect more information about the world, not less.


    Mr Obama says he maintained a "healthy scepticism" toward US surveillance programmes after he became president, but he did not put a stop to the programmes. And he says nothing indicated the US intelligence community sought to violate the law.


    He says people in the intelligence community have made mistakes in what they have collected - but they have corrected those mistakes.


    Mr Obama says that failure in the intelligence community would be catastrophic, and if "another 9/11" were to occur, the spies would be asked by Congress and the news media why they failed to connect the dots.


    Mr Obama has mentioned Edward Snowden's name in public - for the first time.


    He says he will not dwell on Mr Snowden's actions or motivations. But he says the those revelations have generated "more heat than light" and have revealed information about US intelligence practices to America's adversaries in ways we cannot understand yet.


    The task before us, Mr Obama says, is greater than simply repairing the damage done to our operations or preventing more disclosures.


    Mr Obama says a review on intelligence gathering practices will not be completed overnight - but he says he wants the American people to know the work has begun, and that his administration has spent "countless hours" considering reforms.

    1132: Chelsea

    tweets: There's not a risk of government overreach, Mr President, it already happened. #NSA


    Mr Obama says "there's a reason" why Blackberries and smart phones aren't allowed in the White House situation room. And, with a smile on his face, he notes that many of the countries who have loudly protested against American surveillance programmes themselves seek intelligence on the US.


    And, a number of countries who have criticised the NSA also privately recognise the US has a special responsibilities as the world's only superpower, he says.


    Mr Obama says the US has real enemies and threats, and intelligence serves a "vital role" in confronting them. He says the US government is expected to protect the American people - and that requires the US government to have significant intelligence capabilities.


    People with responsibility for US national security recognise the potential for abuse - they have kids on Facebook and Instragram, and they know the vulnerabilities to privacy, Mr Obama says.


    He says there was a recognition by all who participated in the White House review of electronic intelligence practices that challenges to privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations track data for commercial purposes, for example.


    But the standards for government surveillance "must be higher", he says.


    Now Mr Obama begins talking about the more substantive changes he has ordered to the NSA bulk data collection.


    We will review decisions about intelligence priority... so our actions are "regularly scrutinised", he says.


    Mr Obama says he is directing the director of NSA and attorney general to annually review any future opinions of the secret intelligence court and to report to him and Congress.

    1142: Mark Mardell BBC North America editor

    Having set out the worries created by bulk collection Obama, mounts a sturdy defence of the NSA and says they do not listen in to phone calls or read emails. They are not cavalier with privacy. He's about to go on to specific proposals about "upholding our ideals".


    More from Mr Obama about his specific proposals: He'll establish a panel of advocates outside government to provide an independent voice, and ask the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to institute reforms on the government's ability to retain communications between Americans and foreign nationals.


    More from Mr Obama: We will also enable communications providers to make public the orders they receive to provide data to the government.

    1147: Anthony Zurcher, editor of the BBC's Echo Chambers blog

    tweets: Obama: "The folks at NSA are our friends and neighbors". Me: Making note to be sure blinds are closed tonight.


    Mr Obama reminds the audience that bulk collection of telephone records does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of people making calls. It provides a record of phone numbers, time and length of calls.


    Mr Obama says that data can be queried if there are suspicious it can be linked to a terrorist organisation.


    And Mr Obama wants to reassure Americans the NSA programme does not involve the examination of the phone records of average Americans.


    Mr Obama says critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, the NSA programme can open the door to more intrusive bulk collection in the future.


    Now Mr Obama lays out some specifics: He says the US will only pursue phone calls only two steps connected to data of known terrorist organisations, rather than three as before.


    Mr Obama says the upshot of all this is the end of the bulk collection programme as it currently exists. "This will not be simple", he says.

    1152: Michael Tackett, New York Times Washington Bureau,

    tweets: Obama says terrorism investigations shouldn't be subject to higher standards than probing an ordinary crime


    Mr Obama says he has instructed the intelligence community and the attorney general to develop a new approach that "can fill the gaps" without the government holding the metadata itself.


    His review should give Americans "greater confidence their rights are being protected".

    1153: CBS White House Correspondent Peter Maer

    tweets: Pres. Obama strongly defends NSA phone record monitoring as crucial counter-terror tool. No evidence it has been intentionally abused.

    1154: Slate's Matthew Yglesias

    tweets: If Obama wants us to believe he's making large policy shifts in response to Snowden revelations, how can he condemn Snowden?


    Mr Obama says that greater congressional oversight "may be appropriate" and he is prepared to work with Congress.


    Mr Obama says he is confident the US can shape an approach that meets security needs while upholding civil liberties. But he says America's efforts will only be effective if citizens in other countries know the US respects their privacy too.


    Just as we balance security and privacy at home, our global leadership means we must foster trust with leaders around the world, Mr Obama says. "And the leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance."


    Mr Obama says we will not apologise simply because our services may be more effective, but heads of state should feel confident that we are treating them "as real partners".

    1158: David Gregory of NBC's Meet the Press

    tweets: No more monitoring of phone calls of heads of state of allies - what about their deputies? Opposition leaders? Where is the line?


    Mr Obama has a few more points to make. He says the world expects the US to stand up for the principle that every person as the right to think and write and form relationships freely. He says no-one expects China or Russia to engage in these kinds of debates about civil liberties, privacy and surveillance.


    "Because of the strength of our own democracy, we should not shy away from high expectations," Mr Obama says. "For more than two centuries, our constitution has weathered every type of change because we have been willing to defend it, and because we have been willing to question the actions that have been taken in its defence."


    And with that, Mr Obama leaves the podium.

    1202: Edward-Isaac Dovere, Senior White House reporter for Politico,

    tweets: after a couple of mentions of Snowden, Obama concludes NSA speech with a knock on Russia's disregard for privacy

    1202: National Journal

    tweets: Obama's NSA proposals fall far short of real change


    To recap: Mr Obama has broadly defended the US intelligence community, and analysts say his proposals fall short of the real reforms the NSA's critics have demanded.


    Here's two big changes: Effective immediately, the NSA will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a phone number associated with a terrorist organisation, instead of three as before. And for now, Mr Obama has directed the justice department to work with the secret intelligence court to make sure the phone database can only be queried "after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency".

    President Barack Obama at the Justice Department in Washington DC on 17 January 2014

    Here's a photo of Mr Obama giving the speech at the justice department headquarters in Washington.

    1208: Josh Barro, politics editor at Business Insider,

    tweets: Nobody votes on this issue.

    1209: Charlotte Gilhooly

    tweets: Comparing the NSA's surveilance practices to China is setting the bar very low. #NSA #unimpressed

    1212: Dan Froomkin

    tweets: Kudos to Chris Hayes for pointing out that Obama is trying to normalize bulk collection of data.

    President Barack Obama at the Justice Department in Washington DC on 17 January 2014 Mr Obama pledges to increase transparency in US signals intelligence operations
    1214: Christian

    tweets: I would rather have my privacy invaded than be attacked. Just saying... #privacy #NSA #Obama


    Greg Miller of the Washington Post offers five take-aways from Mr Obama's speech on changes to the NSA bulk data collection programme.


    Another key point: Mr Obama has ordered the intelligence community to find a way to preserve its capability to use the bulk telephone call data without the government actually holding the data itself. "This will not be simple," Mr Obama acknowledged.

    1219: Gawker online

    tweets: Obama: NSA surveillance is awesome. And awful. And... um. Yeah. USA USA!!!

    1220: National Journal

    tweets: The White House's plan aims to calm the public, not curtail the government's surveillance programs

    1221: Joshua

    emails from Portland [in reply to Charlotte Gilhooly 1209]: Comparing China's surveillance techniques (as well as Russia's) is not setting the bar low, it demonstrates a confusion that many had over Snowden's destinations after he released details about NSA programs, when both those countries do the same thing, and yet abuse of said systems rarely goes public - especially in their own media.

    1221: CNN Politics

    tweets: on CNN, Sen. Rand Paul grades Obama's #NSA speech: "A for effort and a C for content."

    1223: Orin Kerr, Volokh Conspiracy

    tweets: Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but doesn't Congress need to be involved in this little enterprise?

    1223: Mark Udall, US Senator

    tweets: After my years of #bipartisan work & ongoing efforts, Pres. Obama took big steps forward today on #NSA reform.

    1225: Joyce Karam, Al-Hayat Al-Arabiya columnist

    tweets: Most definitions #Obama gave are vague. Who are "friends and allies", who are "ordinary people", when is "national security threatened"?


    The Washington Post has posted a transcript of Mr Obama's speech.


    Mr Obama spent a few seconds talking about Edward Snowden, the young ex-NSA contractor whose leaks of internal NSA documents kicked off this whole debate last year, and who is now a fugitive in Russia.


    Mr Obama said he would not dwell on Mr Snowden's actions or his motivations. But he attacked his actions: "If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we might not fully understand for years to come."


    Thank you for joining us for the live coverage of President Barack Obama's remarks on proposed changes to NSA surveillance operations. For more news coverage of Mr Obama's speech and the debate over the NSA spying, visit our website.


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