WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama appears to be on verge of making several changes to the nation’s surveillance programs, including halting the government’s storage of mass telephone records of millions of Americans, appointing a public advocate to appear before the nation’s secret surveillance court and stopping spying on some foreign leaders, according to those familiar with the White House deliberations.
The White House spent Thursday seeking final suggestions from lawmakers and experts, including some critics of government spying, as Obama puts the finishing touches on a series of changes he will make following an international uproar over the nation’s surveillance programs.
Obama met with 16 key lawmakers for nearly 90 minutes Thursday, while White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler spoke separately to representatives of about 15 civil liberties and technology groups for more than an hour.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who attended the meeting with the president, said Obama listened intently to a variety of opinions, though he did not indicate what he specifically planned to do.
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy and attended the meeting with Ruemmler, said the administration made no specific commitments. But he said there was an “implicit promise” that the overall programs would change, specifically Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which allows the collection of telephone records.
Obama has signaled support for some changes – having a third-party entity rather than the government store records, appointing a public advocate to the secret court and stopping spying on some foreign leaders – in a variety of speeches and in closed-door meetings. White House aides have continued to focus on the changes as they assist Obama in developing his plans, according to Capitol Hill staffers and advocacy groups, who are not authorized to speak publicly about the deliberations.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama was “fairly far along” in his review but was “still soliciting input” before he announces changes sometime before his State of the Union address Jan. 28. “He’s obviously close to the end of this review,” Carney said.
Some lawmakers and advocates criticized Obama for planning to release his proposals before an independent group – the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board – finishes its own review and recommendations on government surveillance in late January or early February.
“It is the privacy and civil liberties watchdog,” said Elizabeth Goitein, who co-directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, and who attended one of the White House meetings Thursday, said of the board. “Why move forward without them?”
Since June, former contractor Edward Snowden has leaked documents showing the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone and email records of tens of millions of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil, and spying on a host of global institutions including the World Bank.
An advisory panel created by Obama recommended nearly 50 changes to the surveillance programs, which have guided intelligence gathering by the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The administration already has said it will not implement a proposal calling for a separation between the NSA and the U.S. Cyber Command. The two offices both fall under the NSA and its director, but the panel says the two offices serve distinctly different missions and should be separated.
And on Thursday, FBI Director James Comey pushed back against the group’s proposed changes to a controversial investigative tool – dubbed the national security letter program – that he called key to fighting terrorists.
Under the program, the FBI can quickly demand that individuals or organizations turn over credit, financial and Internet subscriber information using a form of administrative subpoena issued without court order. Comey said proposed changes to the program would slow the process down from “hours or days” to weeks.
“It’s a very important tool, and one that’s essential to the work we do,” Comey said during a meeting with 20 reporters at FBI headquarters.
Obama could make some changes through executive actions. Others would require approval from a divided Congress, where support for NSA changes does not fall strictly along party lines.
The president’s meeting Thursday was with nine senators and seven members of the House of Representatives, most from the intelligence, judiciary and appropriations committees, and included some strong proponents of change.
“This meeting was an opportunity for the president to hear from the members about the work they have been doing on these issues since they last met and solicit their input as we near the end of our internal review,” according to a statement issued by the White House.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the administration must find the “sweet spot” between being given the tools needed for warfare while protecting civil rights.
“Whatever reform we do, we have to remember we’re at war,” he said. “These programs are generated by the idea that we are under siege by radical Islamists. The need for this program has to be restated.”
Ruemmler and her staff met with several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, though they asked representatives to keep quiet about the meeting.
The Thursday meetings followed a flurry of others this week by administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander.
White House aides will meet with technology companies Friday.
Lesley Clark, William Douglas and Michael Doyle of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.