January 17th, 2014
01:08 PM ET
9 years ago

Transcript: Obama's NSA speech

(CNN) - President Obama proposed changes Friday to the federal surveillance programs.

Read the transcript below:

"At the dawn of our republic, a small secret surveillance
committee born out of the Sons of Liberty was established in Boston.
And the group's members included Paul Revere. At night, they would
patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were
preparing raids against America's early patriots.

Throughout American history intelligence has helped
secure our country and our freedoms. In the Civil War Union balloons
reconnaissance tracked the size of Confederate armies by counting the
number of campfires.

In World War II, code breakers gave us incites into Japanese war
plans. And, when Patton marched across Europe, intercepted
communications helped save the lives of his troops.

After the war, the Iron Curtain and nuclear weapons only
increased the need for sustained intelligence gathering. And so, in
the early days of the Cold War, President Truman created the National
Security Agency, or NSA, to give us insights into the Soviet block and
provide our leaders with information they needed to confront
aggression and avert catastrophe.

Throughout this evolution, we benefited from both our
Constitution and our traditions of limited government. U.S.
intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of checks and balances
with oversight from elected leaders and protections for ordinary

Meanwhile, totalitarian states like East Germany offered a
cautionary tale of what could happen when vast, unchecked surveillance
turned citizens into informers, and persecuted people for what they
said in the privacy of their own homes.

In fact, even the United States proved not to be immune to the
abuse of surveillance. In the 1960s, government spied on civil rights
leaders and critics of the Vietnam War. And partly in response to
these revelations, additional laws were established in the 1970s to
ensure that our intelligence capabilities could not be misused against
our citizens.

In the long, twilight struggle against communism, we had been
reminded that the very liberties that we sought to preserve could not
be sacrificed at the altar of national security.

After the fall of the Soviet Union left America without a
competing superpower, emerging threats from terrorist groups, and the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction placed new, and in some
ways, more complicated demands on our intelligence agencies.

Globalization and the Internet made these threats more acute as
technology erased borders and empowered individuals to project great
violence as well as great good.

Moreover, these new threats raised new legal and new policy
questions. For while few doubted the legitimacy of spying on hostile
states, our framework of laws was not fully adapted to prevent
terrorist attacks by individuals acting on their own, or acting in
small ideological - ideologically driven groups on behalf of a
foreign power.

The horror of September 11th brought all these issue to the fore.

Across the political spectrum, Americans recognized that we had
to adapt to a world in which a bomb could be built in a basement and
our electric grid could be shut down by operators an ocean away.

We were shaken by the signs we had missed, leading up to the
attacks. How the hijackers had made phone calls to known extremists
and travelled to suspicious places.

So we demanded that our intelligence community improved its
capabilities and that law enforcement changed practices to focus more
on preventing attacks before they happened, and prosecuting terrorists
after an attack.

It is hard to overstate the transformation America's intelligence
community had to go through after 9/11.

OBAMA: Our agencies suddenly needed to do far more than the
traditional mission of monitoring hostile powers and gathering
information for policy makers, instead they were now asked to identify
and target plotters in some of the most remote parts of the world and
to anticipate the actions of networks that by their very nature cannot
be easily penetrated with spies or informants.

And it is a testimony to the hard work and dedication of the men
and women of our intelligence community that over the past decade,
we've made enormous strides in fulfilling this mission.

Today, new capabilities allow intelligence agencies to track who
a terrorist is in contact with and follow the trail of his travel or
his funding.

New laws allow information to be collected and shared more
quickly and effectively between federal agencies and state and local
law enforcement. Relationships with foreign intelligence services
have expanded, and our capacity to repel cyber-attacks have been

And taken together, these efforts have prevented multiple attacks
and saved innocent lives, not just here in the United States, but
around the globe.

And yet, in our rush to respond to a very real and novel set of
threats, the risk of government overreach, the possibility that we
lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security, also became
more pronounced.

We saw, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our government
engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our

As a senator, I was critical of several practices, such as
warrantless wiretaps. And all too often, new authorities were
instituted without adequate public debate.

Through a combination of action by the courts, increased
congressional oversight, and adjustments by the previous
administration, some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11
were curbed by the time I took office. But a variety of factors have
continued to complicate America's efforts to both defend our nation
and uphold our civil liberties.

First, the same technological advances that allow U.S.
intelligence agencies to pinpoint an Al Qaida cell in Yemen or an e-
mail between two terrorists in the Sahel, also mean that many routine
communications around the world are within our reach. And at a time
when more and more of our lives are digital, that prospect is
disquieting for all of us.

Second, the combination of increased digital information and
powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility
of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns
or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats. It's a powerful
tool. But the government collection and storage of such bulk data also
creates a potential for abuse.

Third, the legal safeguards that restrict surveillance
against U.S. persons without a warrant do not apply to foreign persons
overseas. This is not unique to America; few, if any, spy agencies
around the world constrain their activities beyond their own borders.
And the whole point of intelligence is to obtain information that is
not publicly available. But America's capabilities are unique. And the
power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer
technical constraints on what we can do.

That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions
about what we should do.

And, finally, intelligence agencies cannot function without
secrecy, which makes their work less subject to public debate. Yet,
there is an inevitable bias, not only within the intelligence
community, but among all of us who are responsible for national
security, to collect more information about the world, not less.

So, in the absence of institutional requirements for regular
debate – and oversight that is public, as well as private, though
classified, the danger of government overreach becomes more acute.

It is particularly true when surveillance technology and our
reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws.

For all these reasons, I maintained a healthy skepticism toward
our surveillance programs after I became president. I ordered that
our programs be reviewed by my national security team and our lawyers,
and in some cases I ordered changes in how we did business.

We increased oversight and auditing, including new structures
aimed at compliance. Improved rules were proposed by the government
and approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And we
sought to keep Congress continually updated on these activities.

What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale, not
only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because
nothing in that initial review and nothing that I have learned since,
indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the
law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.

To the contrary, in an extraordinarily difficult job, one in
which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure
can be catastrophic, the men and women of the intelligence community,
including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect
the privacy of ordinary people.

They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your
private phone calls, or read your e-mails. When mistakes are made -
which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise -
they correct those mistakes. Laboring in obscurity, often unable to
discuss their work even with family and friends, the men and women at
the NSA know that if another 9/11 or massive cyber-attack occurs, they
will be asked, by Congress and the media, why they failed to connect
the dots.

What sustains those who work at NSA - and our other intelligence
agencies - through all these pressures is the knowledge that their
professionalism and dedication play a central role in the defense of
our nation.

Now, to say that our intelligence community follows the law, and
is staffed by patriots, is not to suggest that I, or others in my
Administration, felt complacent about the potential impact of these

Those of us who hold office in America have a
responsibility to our Constitution, and while I was confident in the
integrity of those in our intelligence community, it was clear to me
in observing our intelligence operations on a regular basis that
changes in our technological capabilities were raising new questions
about the privacy safeguards currently in place.

Moreover, after and extended review of our use of drones in the
fight against terrorist networks, I believed a fresh examination of
our surveillance programs was a necessary next step in our effort to
get off the open-ended war footing that we've maintained since 9/11.

And for these reasons, I indicated in a speech at the National
Defense University last May, that we needed a more robust public
discussion about the balance between security and liberty.

Of course, what I did not know at the time, is that within weeks
of my speech, an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures would spark
controversies at home and abroad that have continued to this day.

And give the fact of an open investigation, I'm not gonna dwell
on Mr. Snowden's action or his motivations. I will say that our
nation's defense depends, in part, on the fidelity of those entrusted
with our nation's secrets.

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

Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures had come
out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to
our adversaries that could impact our operations in way that we may
not fully understand for years to come.

Regardless of how we got here, though, the task before us now is
greater than simply repairing the damage done to our operations or
preventing more disclosures from taking place in the future.

Instead, we have to make some important decisions about
how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world,
while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our
ideals and our Constitution require.

We need to do so not only because it is right, but because the
challenges posed by threats like terrorism and proliferation and
cyber-attacks are not going away anytime soon.

They are going to continue to be a major problem. And for our
intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, we must
maintain the trust of the American people and people around the world.

This effort will not be completed overnight. And given the pace
of technological change, we shouldn't expect this to be the last time
America has this debate.

But I want the American people to know that the work has begun.
Over the last six months, I created an outside review group on
intelligence communications technologies to make recommendations for

I consulted with the privacy and civil liberties oversight board,
created by Congress. I've listened to foreign partners, privacy
advocates, and industry leaders.

My administration has spent countless hours considering how to
approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological

So, before outlining specific changes that I've ordered, let me
make a few broad observations that've emerged from this process.

First, everyone who has looked at these problems, including
skeptics of existing programs, recognizes that we have real enemies
and threats and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting

We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats
without some capability to penetrate digital communications, whether
it's to unravel a terrorist plot, to intercept malware that targets a
stock exchange, to make sure air traffic control systems are not
compromised or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts.
We are expected to protect the American people. That requires us to
have capabilities in this field.

Moreover, we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence
agencies. There is a reason why BlackBerrys and iPhones are not
allowed in the White House Situation Room.

We know that the intelligence services of other countries,
including some who feigned surprise over the Snowden disclosures, are
constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and
accelerating programs to listen to our conversations and intercept our
e-mails and compromise our systems. We know that.

Meanwhile, a number of countries, including some who have loudly
criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special
responsibilities as the world's only superpower, that our intelligence
capabilities are critical to meeting these responsibilities and that
they themselves have relied on the information we obtain to protect
their own people.

Second, just as ardent civil libertarians recognize the need for
robust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our
national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse as
intelligence capabilities advance and more and more private
information is digitized.

After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence
agencies are our neighbors. They're our friends and family. They've
got electronic bank and medical records like everybody else. They
have kids on Facebook and Instagram, and they know, more than most of
us, the vulnerabilities to privacy that exist in a world where
transactions are recorded and e-mail and text messages are stored and
even our movements can be tracked through the GPS on our phones.

Third, there was a recognition by all who participated in these
reviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from government
alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store
and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes. That's how
those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone periodically.
But all of us understand that the standards for government
surveillance must be higher.

Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders
to say, trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect for history has
too many examples when that trust has been breached. Our system of
government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on
the good intentions of those in power. It depends upon the law to
constrain those in power.

I make these observations to underscore that the basic values of
most Americans when it comes to questions of surveillance and privacy
converge a lot more than the crude characterizations that have emerged
over the last several months.

Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not
interested in a repeating the tragedy 9/11, and those who defend these
programs are not dismissive of civil liberties. The challenge is
getting the details right, and that's not simple.

In fact, during the course of our review, I've often
reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the
courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own

And as president, a president who looks at intelligence every
morning, I also can't help but be reminded that America must be
vigilant in the face of threats.

Now fortunately, by focusing on facts and specifics rather than
speculation and hypotheticals, this review process has given me, and
hopefully the American people, some clear direction for change.

And today, I can announce a series of concrete and substantial
reforms that my administration attends to adopt administratively, or
will seek to codify with Congress.

First, I have approve a new presidential directive for our
signals intelligence activities, both at home, and abroad. This
guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our
intelligence activities.

It will ensure that we take into account our security
requirements, but also our alliances, our trade and investment
relationships, including the concerns of American companies, and our
commitment to privacy and basic liberties.

And we will review decisions about intelligence priorities and
sensitive targets on an annual basis so that our actions are regularly
scrutinized by my senior national security team.

Second, we will reform programs and procedures in place to
provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and
fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.

Since we began this review, including information being
released today, we've declassified over 40 opinions and orders of the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides judicial
review of some of our most sensitive intelligence activities,
including the Section 702 program, targeting foreign individuals
overseas and the Section 215, telephone metadata program.

And going forward, I am directing the director of national
intelligence, in consultation with the attorney general to annually
review, for the purposes of declassification, and future opinions of
the court with broad privacy implications, and to report to me and to
Congress on these efforts.

To ensure that the court hears a broader range of privacy
perspectives, I'm also calling on Congress to authorize the
establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to
provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Third, we will provide additional protections for activities
conducted under Section 702 which allows the government to intercept
the communications of foreign targets overseas who have information
that's important for our national security.

Specifically, I'm asking the attorney general and DNI to
institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government's
ability to retain, search and use, in criminal cases, communications
between Americans and foreign citizens, incidentally collected under
section 702.

Fourth, in investigating threats, the FBI also relies on what's
called, National Security Letters, which can require companies to
provide specific and limited information to the government without
disclosing the order to the subject of the investigation.

Now, these are cases in which it's important that the
subject of the investigation, such as a possible terrorist or spy,
isn't tipped off.

But we can, and should, be more transparent in how government
uses this authority. I've therefore directed the attorney general to
amend how we use national security letters so this secrecy will not be
indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the
government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.

We will also enable communications providers to make public more
information than ever before about the orders that they have received
to provide data to the government.

This brings me to program that has generated the most controversy
these past few months, the bulk collection of telephone records under
Section 215.

Let me repeat what I said when this story first broke. This
program does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of
people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers,
and the times and lengths of calls, metadata that can be queried if
and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is
linked to a terrorist organization.

Why is this necessary? The program grew out of a desire to
address a gap identified after 9/11. One of the 9/11 hijackers,
Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known Al
Qaida safe house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but it could not
see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United

The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was
designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who
they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. This capability
could also prove valuable in a crisis.

For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law
enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to
conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to
quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network
exists is critical to that effort.

In sum, the program does not involve the NSA examining the phone
records of ordinary Americans. Rather, it consolidates these records
into a database that the government can query if it has a specific
lead, a consolidation of phone records that the companies already
retain for business purposes.

The Review Group turned up no indication that this database has
been intentionally abused. And I believe it is important that the
capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.

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 in the future.

They're also rightly point out that, although the
telephone bulk collection program was subject to oversight by the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and has been reauthorized
repeatedly by Congress, it has never been subject to vigorous public

For all these reasons, I believe we need a new approach. I am
therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk
metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that
preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this
bulk metadata.

This will not be simple. The review group recommended that our
current approach be replaced by one in which the providers, or a third
party, retain the bulk records, with government accessing information
as needed.

Both of these options pose difficult problems. Relying solely on
the records of multiple providers, for example, could require
companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy

On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single,
consolidated database would be carrying out what's essentially a
government function, but with more expense, more legal ambiguity,
potentially less accountability, all of which would have a doubtful
impact on increasing public confidence that their privacy is being

During the review process, some suggested that we may also be
able to preserve the capabilities we need through a combination of
existing authorities that are information-sharing and recent
technological advances.

But more work needs to be done to determine exactly how this
system might work.

Because of the challenges involved, I've ordered that the
transition away from the existing program will proceed in two steps.

Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls
that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist
organization, instead of the current three.

And I have directed the attorney general to work with the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period,
the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the
case of a true emergency.

Next, step two, I've instructed the intelligence community and
attorney general to use this transition period to develop options for
a new approach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that
the Section 215 program was designed to address without the government
holding this metadata itself.

They will report back to me with options for alternative
approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March
28th. And during this period, I will consult with the relevant
committees in Congress to seek their views and then seek congressional
authorization for the new program as needed.

Now, the reforms I'm proposing today should give the American
people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even
as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools
they need to keep us safe.

Now, I recognize that there are additional issues that require
further debate. For example, some who participated in our review, as
well as some members of Congress, would like to see more sweeping
reforms to the use of national security letters, so we have to go to a
judge each time before issuing these requests.

Here, I have concerns that we should not set a standard
for terrorism investigations that is higher than those involved in
investigating an ordinary crime. But I agree that greater oversight
on the use of these letters may be appropriate, and I'm prepared to
work with Congress on this issue.

There are also those who would like to see different changes to
the FISA court than the ones I've proposed. On all these issues I'm
open to working with Congress to ensure that we build a broad
consensus for how to move forward.

And I'm confident that we can shape an approach that meets our
security needs while upholding the civil liberties of every American.

Let me now turn to the separate set of concerns that have been
raised overseas and focus on America's approach to intelligence
collection abroad. As I've indicated, the United States has unique
responsibilities when it comes to intelligence collection. Our
capabilities help protect not only our nation but our friends and our
allies as well.

But our efforts will only be effective if ordinary citizens in
other countries have confidence that the United States respects their
privacy, too. And the leaders of our close friends and allies deserve
to know that if I want to know what they think about an issue, I'll
pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance.

In other words, just as we balance security and privacy at home,
our global leadership demands that we balance our security
requirements against our need to maintain the trust and cooperation
among people and leaders around the world.

For that reason, the new presidential directive that I've issued
today will clearly prescribe what we do and do not do when it comes to
our overseas surveillance.

To begin with, the directive makes clear that the United
States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security
purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the e-
mails or phone calls of ordinary folks.

I've also made it clear that the United States does not collect
intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect
intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their ethnicity,
or race, or gender, or sexual orientation or religious beliefs. We do
not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S.
companies, or U.S. commercial sectors.

And in terms of our bulk collection of signals intelligence, U.S.
intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific
security requirements: Counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism,
counter-proliferation, cyber-security, force protection for our troops
and allies and combating transnational crime including sanctions

In this directive I have taken the unprecedented step of
extending certain protections that we have for the American people to
people overseas. I have directed the DNI, in consultation with the
Attorney General, to develop these safeguards, which will limit the
duration that we can hold personal information, while also restricting
the use of this information.

The bottom line is that people around the world - regardless of
their nationality - should know that the United States is not spying
on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and that
we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and
procedures. This applies to foreign leaders as well.

Given the understandable attention that this issue has
received, I have made clear to the intelligence community that -
unless there is a compelling national security purpose - we will not
monitor the communications of heads of state, and government, of our
close friends and allies.

And I've instructed my national security team, as well as the
intelligence community, to work with foreign counterparts to deepen
our coordination and cooperation in ways that rebuild trust, going

Now, let me be clear, our intelligence agencies will continue to
gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to
ordinary citizens, around the world, in the same way that the
intelligence services of every other nation does.

We will not apologize, simply, because our services may be more
effective. But, heads of state and government, with who we work
closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident
that we are treating them as real partners.

And the changes I've ordered, do just that.

Finally, to make sure that we follow through on all these
reforms, I'm making some important changes to how our government is

The State Department will designate a senior officer to
coordinate our diplomacy on issues related to technology and signals
intelligence. We will appoint a senior official at the White House to
implement the new privacy safeguards that I've announced today.

I will devote the resources to centralize and improve the process
we use to handle foreign requests for legal assistance, keeping our
high standards for privacy, while helping foreign partners fight crime
and terrorism.

I've also asked my counselor, John Podesta, to lead a
comprehensive review of big data and privacy. And this group will
consist of government officials, who along with the President's
Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, will reach out to
privacy experts, technologists and business leaders and look how the
challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the
public and private sectors, whether we can forge international norms
on how to manage this data, and how we can continue to promote the
free-flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy
and security.

For ultimately, what's at stake in this debate goes far beyond a
few months of headlines, or passing tensions in our foreign policy.
When you cut through the noise, what's really at stake is how we
remain true to who we are in a world that's remaking itself at
dizzying speed.

Whether it's the ability of individuals to access information
that would have once filled every great library in every country in
the world, or to forge bonds with people on the other side of the
globe, technology is remaking what is possible for individuals and for
institutions and for the international order.

So all the reforms that I have announced will point us in a new
direction. I am mindful that more work will be needed in the future.
One thing I am certain of, this debate will make us stronger.

And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of
America will have to lead.

It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different
standard, and I'll admit that the readiness of some to assume the
worst motives by our government can be frustrating.

No one expects China to have an open debate about their
surveillance programs, or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens
in other places into account.

But let's remember, we are held to a different standard precisely
because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy
and human dignity.

As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us
to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual
empowerment, not government control.

Having faced down the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism and
communism, the world expects us to stand up for the principle that
every person has the right to think and write and form relationships
freely, because individual freedom is the wellspring of human

Those values make us who we are. And because of the strength of
our own democracy, we should not shy away from high expectations.

For more than two centuries, our Constitution has weathered every
type of change because we've been willing to defend it and because
we've been willing to question the actions that have been taken in its

Today is no different. I believe we can meet high expectations.
Together, let us chart a way forward that secures the life of our
nation, while preserving the liberties that make our nation worth
fighting for.

Thank you. God bless you. May God bless the United States of

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