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Obama: NSA not snooping on Americans

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WASHINGTON -- U. S. President Barack Obama gave the first indication of the potential outcome of an intense debate over restricting the nation's intelligence agencies, signalling Friday he might change one of the most controversial spy practices of the secretive National Security Agency -- the collection of the daily telephone records of millions of Americans.

Senior intelligence officials and their allies on the congressional intelligence committees are pushing the president to reject key recommendations made by an advisory panel he appointed, including some that are of keen importance to privacy advocates and major technology companies, such as Google, Apple and Microsoft, whose executives met with Obama this week.

The White House released the recommendations Thursday, and officials say Obama so far hasn't ruled out any except a proposal to appoint a civilian director of the NSA.

The president plans to examine the issues during his holiday break and disclose his decisions after he returns to Washington in January.

In the meantime, Obama's language in a news conference Friday at the White House marked a significant shift from his previous defences of the spy agency. In June, when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to disclose information about the agency's activities, Obama tried to reassure Americans his administration had carefully evaluated surveillance techniques and had struck an appropriate balance between security and privacy.

Since then, Obama said, "the environment has changed" because of the impact of Snowden's revelations on public perceptions of government surveillance.

"People right now are concerned that maybe their phone calls are being listened to -- even if they're not -- and we've got to factor that in," he said.

"I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around," Obama said. But, he added, "We may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I'm going to be working very hard on doing that."

Shortly after Obama spoke, the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued a statement defending the NSA's telephone records program. The NSA's collection of "metadata" -- information such as which numbers a particular phone connected with and how long calls lasted -- is "a valuable analytical tool that assists intelligence personnel in their efforts to efficiently 'connect the dots' on emerging or current terrorist threats," said the statement.

Among the review panel's 46 recommendations, one -- that telecommunications companies, rather than the government, store the records of phone calls -- appears to have a strong likelihood of being adopted.

Such a change might head off "potential abuse down the road," Obama said, and could address public concerns.

Intelligence officials have indicated they could live with that change. "We're the ones who have been pushing" for it, said a senior intelligence official who has been privy to discussions about the recommendations, noting NSA director Keith Alexander "has testified all along that we would be fine with it."

In order for the phone companies to keep the data, Congress would have to pass legislation requiring them to do so, the official said, and a way would have to be found to standardize and combine the data for easy searching. The government also would have to reimburse the companies for the storage costs. Telephone companies already keep most of the relevant data, although not for as long as the NSA stores it -- five years.

A far more controversial issue is whether to impose new restrictions on how freely NSA analysts can search the data.

-- Tribune Washington Bureau

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 A22

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