Let's Recap How Obama Went from Defensive to Contrite on NSA Spying


President Obama wants to get the National Security out of the business of collecting phone records en masse. But he didn’t always feel that way.

The Obama administration plans to present a proposal to Congress that would end the NSA’s efforts to gather Americans’ call data, The New York Times reported on Monday. Phone companies would instead store the information for 18 months, as opposed to five years under the NSA’s current arrangement. The government would need to seek permission from a court in order to access specific phone records.

Obama, however, defended the mass collection of phone records for months as vital to protecting the nation from terror threats.

The saga began when the once-secret program was revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last June. His disclosures to the press sparked a major controversy around U.S. government surveillance programs.

Now, after months of public pressure, Obama has finally agreed to rein in the NSA’s records-collection practices.

“This is a turning point, and it marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public’s seat at the table of government,” Snowden said in a statement provided to the American Civil Liberties Union.

How did the president come to change his mind then? Here’s a brief timeline:

1. Obama: ‘Nobody is listening to your telephone calls’ (June 2013)

Obama initially tried to downplay the “hype” surrounding the controversy around the NSA’s phone-record collection program.

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“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama told reporters in his first public comments after the Snowden disclosures. “That’s not what this program is about.”

Obama said that by sifting through “metadata” (i.e. phone numbers and the duration of calls), intelligence officials “may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”

Privacy advocates challenged the notion that the program was a necessary tool in identifying terror threats.

“We have not yet seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence,” Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), members of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a joint statement last June in response to claims from the NSA’s director that the program has helped thwart “dozens” of attacks.

An NSA internal audit revealed the agency broke privacy rules thousands of times each year since 2008, including through unintended interception of Americans’ emails and phone calls, The Washington Post reported in August.

2. Judge rules phone-records program likely unconstitutional (Dec. 2013)

A federal judge ruled last December that the NSA’s mass collection of phone records was almost a certain violation of the Constitution.

Judge Richard Leon decided that a lawsuit against the program was likely to succeed on the grounds that it violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. His ruling went against a decision by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, made public last September, which upheld the constitutionality of the phone record collections.

The federal government appealed Leon’s ruling, and the legal battle could eventually reach the Supreme Court. Still, the judge’s finding gave a boost to the NSA’s opponents who said the agency’s phone-records program was an invasion of privacy.

3. Panel urges Obama to curtail data collection (Dec. 2013)

A panel of intelligence and legal experts recommended in mid-December that President Obama adopt a sweeping array of changes to NSA surveillance system, including an end to its phone data collection program.

The experts’ report, which was solicited by Obama, called for phone records to be stored with phone companies or a private third party. The report said the government should be required to seek a court order to view phone records.

The power the NSA has to collect phone records in bulk is not necessary to protect national security, according to the panel.

The revised approach “would allow the government access to the relevant information when such access is justified, and thus protect national security without unnecessarily threatening privacy and liberty,” the report reads.

In a news conference two days after the report was released, Obama indicated that he would soon propose his own changes to NSA surveillance programs.

4. Obama recommends changes to NSA phone data collection (Jan. 2014)

Obama ordered his administration to reform the way it collects phone records in January.

The president said that the NSA should no longer collect and store the data itself, and said that intelligence officials should need permission from a judge to tap into the database.

“I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved,” he said during a speech at the Justice Department. “Having said that, I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives, and open the door to more intrusive, bulk-collection programs.”

Obama tasked Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence agencies to come up with a plan by March 28 to transfer the phone-record program out of the NSA’s hands.

Jordan Fabian is Fusion’s politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he’s not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.

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