THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
January 17, 2014
Remarks of President Barack Obama
Never miss a local story.
Results of our Signals Intelligence Review
January 17, 2014
As Prepared for Delivery –
At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committeeborne out of the “The Sons of Liberty” was established in Boston. Thegroup’s members included Paul Revere, and at night they would patrolthe streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparingraids against America’s early Patriots.
Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure ourcountry and our freedoms. In the Civil War, Union balloonreconnaissance tracked the size of Confederate armies by counting thenumber of camp fires. In World War II, code-breaking gave us insightinto Japanese war plans, and when Patton marched across Europe,intercepted communications helped save the lives of his troops. Afterthe war, the rise of the Iron Curtain and nuclear weapons onlyincreased the need for sustained intelligence-gathering. And so, inthe early days of the Cold War, President Truman created the NationalSecurity Agency to give us insight into the Soviet bloc, and provideour leaders with information they needed to confront aggression andavert catastrophe.
Throughout this evolution, we benefited from both our Constitution andtraditions of limited government. U.S. intelligence agencies wereanchored in our system of checks and balances – with oversight fromelected leaders, and protections for ordinary citizens. Meanwhile,totalitarian states like East Germany offered a cautionary tale ofwhat could happen when vast, unchecked surveillance turned citizensinto informers, and persecuted people for what they said in theprivacy of their own homes.
In fact even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse ofsurveillance. In the 1960s, government spied on civil rights leadersand critics of the Vietnam War. Partly in response to theserevelations, additional laws were established in the 1970s to ensurethat our intelligence capabilities could not be misused against ourcitizens. In the long, twilight struggle against Communism, we hadbeen reminded that the very liberties that we sought to preserve couldnot be sacrificed at the altar of national security.
If the fall of the Soviet Union left America without a competingsuperpower, emerging threats from terrorist groups, and theproliferation of weapons of mass destruction placed new – and, in someways more complicated – demands on our intelligence agencies.Globalization and the Internet made these threats more acute, astechnology erased borders and empowered individuals to project greatviolence, as well as great good. Moreover, these new threats raisednew legal and policy questions. For while few doubted the legitimacyof spying on hostile states, our framework of laws was not fullyadapted to prevent terrorist attacks by individuals acting on theirown, or acting in small, ideologically driven groups rather than onbehalf of a foreign power.
The horror of September 11th brought these issues to the fore. Acrossthe political spectrum, Americans recognized that we had to adapt to aworld in which a bomb could be built in a basement, and our electricgrid could be shut down by operators an ocean away. We were shaken bythe signs we had missed leading up to the attacks – how the hijackershad made phone calls to known extremists, and travelled to suspiciousplaces. So we demanded that our intelligence community improve itscapabilities, and that law enforcement change practices to focus moreon preventing attacks before they happen than prosecuting terroristsafter an attack.
It is hard to overstate the transformation America’s intelligencecommunity had to go through after 9/11. Our agencies suddenly neededto do far more than the traditional mission of monitoring hostilepowers and gathering information for policymakers – instead, they wereasked to identify and target plotters in some of the most remote partsof the world, and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by theirvery nature, cannot be easily penetrated with spies or informants.
And it is a testimony to the hard work and dedication of the men andwomen in our intelligence community that over the past decade, we madeenormous strides in fulfilling this mission. Today, new capabilitiesallow intelligence agencies to track who a terrorist is in contactwith, and follow the trail of his travel or funding. New laws allowinformation to be collected and shared more quickly between federalagencies, and state and local law enforcement. Relationships withforeign intelligence services have expanded, and our capacity to repelcyber-attacks has been strengthened. Taken together, these effortshave prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives – not justhere in the United States, but around the globe as well.
And yet, in our rush to respond to very real and novel threats, therisks of government overreach – the possibility that we lose some ofour core liberties in pursuit of security – became more pronounced. Wesaw, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our government engaged inenhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values. As aSenator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantlesswiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted withoutadequate public debate.
Through a combination of action by the courts, increased congressionaloversight, and adjustments by the previous Administration, some of theworst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I tookoffice. But a variety of factors have continued to complicateAmerica’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civilliberties.
First, the same technological advances that allow U.S. intelligenceagencies to pin-point an al Qaeda cell in Yemen or an email betweentwo terrorists in the Sahel, also mean that many routinecommunications around the world are within our reach. At a time whenmore and more of our lives are digital, that prospect is disquietingfor all of us.
Second, the combination of increased digital information and powerfulsupercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of siftingthrough massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursueleads that may thwart impending threats. But the government collectionand 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 theworld constrain their activities beyond their own borders. And thewhole point of intelligence is to obtain information that is notpublicly available. But America’s capabilities are unique. And thepower of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewertechnical constraints on what we can do. That places a specialobligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.
Finally, intelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy, whichmakes their work less subject to public debate. Yet there is aninevitable bias not only within the intelligence community, but amongall who are responsible for national security, to collect moreinformation about the world, not less. So in the absence ofinstitutional requirements for regular debate – and oversight that ispublic, as well as private – the danger of government overreachbecomes more acute. This is particularly true when surveillancetechnology and our reliance on digital information is evolving muchfaster than our laws.
For all these reasons, I maintained a healthy skepticism toward oursurveillance programs after I became President. I ordered that ourprograms be reviewed by my national security team and our lawyers, andin some cases I ordered changes in how we did business. We increasedoversight and auditing, including new structures aimed at compliance.Improved rules were proposed by the government and approved by theForeign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And we sought to keepCongress continually updated on these activities.
What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale – not only becauseI felt that they made us more secure; but also because nothing in thatinitial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated thatour intelligence community has sought to violate the law or iscavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.
To the contrary, in an extraordinarily difficult job, one in whichactions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can becatastrophic, the men and women of the intelligence community,including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protectthe privacy of ordinary people. They are not abusing authorities inorder to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails. Whenmistakes are made – which is inevitable in any large and complicatedhuman enterprise – they correct those mistakes. Laboring in obscurity,often unable to discuss their work even with family and friends, theyknow that if another 9/11 or massive cyber-attack occurs, they will beasked, by Congress and the media, why they failed to connect the dots.What sustains those who work at NSA through all these pressures is theknowledge that their professionalism and dedication play a centralrole in the defense of our nation.
To say that our intelligence community follows the law, and is staffedby patriots, is not to suggest that I, or others in my Administration,felt complacent about the potential impact of these programs. Those ofus who hold office in America have a responsibility to ourConstitution, and while I was confident in the integrity of those inour intelligence community, it was clear to me in observing ourintelligence operations on a regular basis that changes in ourtechnological capabilities were raising new questions about theprivacy safeguards currently in place. Moreover, after an extendedreview of our use of drones in the fight against terrorist networks, Ibelieved a fresh examination of our surveillance programs was anecessary next step in our effort to get off the open endedwar-footing that we have maintained since 9/11. For these reasons, Iindicated in a speech at the National Defense University last May thatwe needed a more robust public discussion about the balance betweensecurity and liberty. What I did not know at the time is that withinweeks of my speech, an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures wouldspark controversies at home and abroad that have continued to thisday.
Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr.Snowden’s actions or motivations. I will say that our nation’s defensedepends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’ssecrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can takeit in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information,then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreignpolicy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures havecome out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methodsto our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that wemay not fully understand for years to come.
Regardless of how we got here, though, the task before us now isgreater than simply repairing the damage done to our operations; orpreventing more disclosures from taking place in the future. Instead,we have to make some important decisions about how to protectourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding thecivil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals – and ourConstitution – require. We need to do so not only because it is right,but because the challenges posed by threats like terrorism,proliferation, and cyber-attacks are not going away any time soon, andfor our intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, wemust maintain the trust of the American people, and people around theworld.
This effort will not be completed overnight, and given the pace oftechnological change, we shouldn’t expect this to be the last timeAmerica has this debate. But I want the American people to know thatthe work has begun. Over the last six months, I created an outsideReview Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to makerecommendations for reform. I’ve consulted with the Privacy and CivilLiberties Oversight Board. I’ve listened to foreign partners, privacyadvocates, and industry leaders. My Administration has spent countlesshours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffusethreats and technological revolution. And before outlining specificchanges that I have ordered, let me make a few broad observations thathave emerged from this process.
First, everyone who has looked at these problems, including skepticsof existing programs, recognizes that we have real enemies andthreats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confrontingthem. We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats withoutsome capability to penetrate digital communications – whether it’s tounravel a terrorist plot; to intercept malware that targets a stockexchange; to make sure air traffic control systems are notcompromised; or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bankaccounts.
Moreover, we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.There is a reason why blackberries and I-Phones are not allowed in theWhite House Situation Room. We know that the intelligence services ofother countries – including some who feign surprise over the Snowdendisclosures – are constantly probing our government and private sectornetworks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations,intercept our emails, or compromise our systems. Meanwhile, a numberof countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA,privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as theworld’s only superpower; that our intelligence capabilities arecritical to meeting these responsibilities; and that they themselveshave relied on the information we obtain to protect their own people.
Second, just as ardent civil libertarians recognize the need forrobust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for ournational security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse asintelligence capabilities advance, and more and more privateinformation is digitized. After all, the folks at NSA and otherintelligence agencies are our neighbors and our friends. They haveelectronic bank and medical records like everyone else. They have kidson Facebook and Instagram, and they know, more than most of us, thevulnerabilities to privacy that exist in a world where transactionsare recorded; emails and text messages are stored; and even ourmovements can be tracked through the GPS on our phones.
Third, there was a recognition by all who participated in thesereviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from governmentalone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, storeand analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes; that’s howthose targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone. But all ofus understand that the standards for government surveillance must behigher. Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough forleaders to say: trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect. Forhistory has too many examples when that trust has been breached. Oursystem of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannotdepend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends upon thelaw to constrain those in power.
I make these observations to underscore that the basic values of mostAmericans when it comes to questions of surveillance and privacyconverge far more than the crude characterizations that have emergedover the last several months. Those who are troubled by our existingprograms are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defendthese programs are not dismissive of civil liberties. The challenge isgetting the details right, and that’s not simple. Indeed, during thecourse of our review, I have often reminded myself that I would not bewhere I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents, like Dr.King, who were spied on by their own government; as a President wholooks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be remindedthat America must be vigilant in the face of threats.
Fortunately, by focusing on facts and specifics rather thanspeculation and hypotheticals, this review process has given me – andhopefully the American people – some clear direction for change. Andtoday, I can announce a series of concrete and substantial reformsthat my Administration intends to adopt administratively or will seekto codify with Congress.
First, I have approved a new presidential directive for our signalsintelligence activities, at home and abroad. This guidance willstrengthen 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 America’s companies; and our commitment toprivacy and basic liberties. And we will review decisions aboutintelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis, sothat our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior nationalsecurity team.
Second, we will reform programs and procedures in place to providegreater transparency to our surveillance activities, and fortify thesafeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Since we beganthis review, including information being released today, we havedeclassified over 40 opinions and orders of the Foreign IntelligenceSurveillance Court, which provides judicial review of some of our mostsensitive intelligence activities – including the Section 702 programtargeting foreign individuals overseas and the Section 215 telephonemetadata program. Going forward, I am directing the Director ofNational Intelligence, in consultation with the Attorney General, toannually review – for the purpose of declassification – any futureopinions of the Court with broad privacy implications, and to reportto me and Congress on these efforts. To ensure that the Court hears abroader range of privacy perspectives, I am calling on Congress toauthorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outsidegovernment to provide an independent voice in significant cases beforethe Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Third, we will provide additional protections for activities conductedunder Section 702, which allows the government to intercept thecommunications of foreign targets overseas who have information that’simportant for our national security. Specifically, I am asking theAttorney General and DNI to institute reforms that place additionalrestrictions on government’s ability to retain, search, and use incriminal cases, communications between Americans and foreign citizensincidentally collected under Section 702.
Fourth, in investigating threats, the FBI also relies on NationalSecurity Letters, which can require companies to provide specific andlimited information to the government without disclosing the orders tothe subject of the investigation. These are cases in which it isimportant that the subject of the investigation, such as a possibleterrorist or spy, isn’t tipped off. But we can – and should – be moretransparent in how government uses this authority. I have thereforedirected the Attorney General to amend how we use National SecurityLetters so this secrecy will not be indefinite, and will terminatewithin a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need forfurther secrecy. We will also enable communications providers to makepublic more information than ever before about the orders they havereceived to provide data to the government.
This brings me to program that has generated the most controversythese past few months – the bulk collection of telephone records underSection 215. Let me repeat what I said when this story first broke –this program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the namesof people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbersand the times and lengths of calls – meta-data that can be queried ifand when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number islinked to a terrorist organization.
Why is this necessary? The program grew out of a desire to address agap identified after 9/11. One of the 9/11 hijackers – Khalidal-Mihdhar – made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaedasafe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but could not see that it wascoming from an individual already in the United States. The telephonemetadata program under Section 215 was designed to map thecommunications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contactwith as quickly as possible. This capability could also prove valuablein a crisis. For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities andlaw enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised toconduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able toquickly review telephone connections to assess whether a networkexists is critical to that effort.
In sum, the program does not involve the NSA examining the phonerecords of ordinary Americans. Rather, it consolidates these recordsinto a database that the government can query if it has a specificlead – phone records that the companies already retain for businesspurposes. The Review Group turned up no indication that this databasehas been intentionally abused. And I believe it is important that thecapability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.
Having said that, I believe critics are right to point out thatwithout proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yieldmore information about our private lives, and open the door to moreintrusive, bulk collection programs. They also rightly point out thatalthough the telephone bulk collection program was subject tooversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and has beenreauthorized repeatedly by Congress, it has never been subject tovigorous public debate.
For all these reasons, I believe we need a new approach. I amtherefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulkmetadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanismthat preserves the capabilities we need without the government holdingthis bulk meta-data.
This will not be simple. The Review Group recommended that our currentapproach be replaced by one in which the providers or a third partyretain the bulk records, with the government accessing information asneeded. Both of these options pose difficult problems. Relying solelyon the records of multiple providers, for example, could requirecompanies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacyconcerns. On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single,consolidated data-base would be carrying out what is essentially agovernment function with more expense, more legal ambiguity, and adoubtful impact on public confidence that their privacy is beingprotected.
During the review process, some suggested that we may also be able topreserve the capabilities we need through a combination of existingauthorities, better information sharing, and recent technologicaladvances. But more work needs to be done to determine exactly how thissystem might work.
Because of the challenges involved, I’ve ordered that the transitionaway from the existing program will proceed in two steps. Effectiveimmediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two stepsremoved from a number associated with a terrorist organization insteadof three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with theForeign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transitionperiod, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, orin a true emergency.
Next, I have instructed the intelligence community and AttorneyGeneral to use this transition period to develop options for a newapproach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that theSection 215 program was designed to address without the governmentholding this meta-data. They will report back to me with options foralternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorizationon March 28. During this period, I will consult with the relevantcommittees in Congress to seek their views, and then seekcongressional authorization for the new program as needed.
The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American peoplegreater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as ourintelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they needto keep us safe. I recognize that there are additional issues thatrequire further debate. For example, some who participated in ourreview, as well as some in Congress, would like to see more sweepingreforms to the use of National Security Letters, so that we have to goto a judge before issuing these requests. Here, I have concerns thatwe should not set a standard for terrorism investigations that ishigher than those involved in investigating an ordinary crime. But Iagree that greater oversight on the use of these letters may beappropriate, and am prepared to work with Congress on this issue.There are also those who would like to see different changes to theFISA court than the ones I have proposed. On all of these issues, I amopen to working with Congress to ensure that we build a broadconsensus for how to move forward, and am confident that we can shapean approach that meets our security needs while upholding the civilliberties of every American.
Let me now turn to the separate set of concerns that have been raisedoverseas, and focus on America’s approach to intelligence collectionabroad. As I’ve indicated, the United States has uniqueresponsibilities when it comes to intelligence collection. Ourcapabilities help protect not only our own nation, but our friends andallies as well. Our efforts will only be effective if ordinarycitizens in other countries have confidence that the United Statesrespects their privacy too. And the leaders of our close friends andallies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think aboutan issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turningto surveillance. In other words, just as we balance security andprivacy at home, our global leadership demands that we balance oursecurity requirements against our need to maintain trust andcooperation among people and leaders around the world.
For that reason, the new presidential directive that I have issuedtoday will clearly prescribe what we do, and do not do, when it comesto our overseas surveillance. To begin with, the directive makes clearthat the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimatenational security purposes, and not for the purpose ofindiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinarypeople. I have also made it clear that the United States does notcollect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do wecollect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of theirethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. Andwe do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage toU.S. companies, or U.S. commercial sectors.
In terms of our bulk collection of signals intelligence, U.S.intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specificsecurity requirements: counter-intelligence; counter-terrorism;counter-proliferation; cyber-security; force protection for our troopsand allies; and combating transnational crime, including sanctionsevasion. Moreover, I have directed that we take the unprecedented stepof extending certain protections that we have for the American peopleto people overseas. I have directed the DNI, in consultation with theAttorney General, to develop these safeguards, which will limit theduration that we can hold personal information, while also restrictingthe use of this information.
The bottom line is that people around the world – regardless of theirnationality – should know that the United States is not spying onordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that wetake their privacy concerns into account. This applies to foreignleaders as well. Given the understandable attention that this issuehas received, I have made clear to the intelligence community that –unless there is a compelling national security purpose – we will notmonitor the communications of heads of state and government of ourclose friends and allies. And I’ve instructed my national securityteam, as well as the intelligence community, to work with foreigncounterparts to deepen our coordination and cooperation in ways thatrebuild trust going forward.
Now let me be clear: our intelligence agencies will continue to gatherinformation about the intentions of governments – as opposed toordinary citizens – around the world, in the same way that theintelligence services of every other nation does. We will notapologize simply because our services may be more effective. But headsof state and government with whom we work closely, and on whosecooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating themas real partners. The changes I’ve ordered do just that.
Finally, to make sure that we follow through on these reforms, I ammaking some important changes to how our government is organized. TheState Department will designate a senior officer to coordinate ourdiplomacy on issues related to technology and signals intelligence. Wewill appoint a senior official at the White House to implement the newprivacy safeguards that I have announced today. I will devote theresources to centralize and improve the process we use to handleforeign requests for legal assistance, keeping our high standards forprivacy while helping foreign partners fight crime and terrorism.
I have also asked my Counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensivereview of big data and privacy. This group will consist of governmentofficials who—along with the President’s Council of Advisors onScience and Technology—will reach out to privacy experts,technologists and business leaders, and look at how the challengesinherent in big data are being confronted by both the public andprivate sectors; whether we can forge international norms on how tomanage this data; and how we can continue to promote the free flow ofinformation in ways that are consistent with both privacy andsecurity.
For ultimately, what’s at stake in this debate goes far beyond a fewmonths of headlines, or passing tensions in our foreign policy. Whenyou cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remaintrue to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzyingspeed. Whether it’s the ability of individuals to communicate ideas;to access information that would have once filled every great libraryin every country in the world; or to forge bonds with people on othersides of the globe, technology is remaking what is possible forindividuals, for institutions, and for the international order. Sowhile the reforms that I have announced will point us in a newdirection, I am mindful that more work will be needed in the future.
One thing I’m certain of: this debate will make us stronger. And Ialso know that in this time of change, the United States of Americawill have to lead. It may seem sometimes that America is being held toa different standard, and the readiness of some to assume the worstmotives by our government can be frustrating. No one expects China tohave an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia totake the privacy concerns of citizens into account. But let usremember that we are held to a different standard precisely because wehave been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and humandignity.
As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us toensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individualempowerment rather than government control. Having faced down thetotalitarian dangers of fascism and communism, the world expects us tostand up for the principle that every person has the right to thinkand write and form relationships freely – because individual freedomis the wellspring of human progress.
Those values make us who we are. And because of the strength of ourown democracy, we should not shy away from high expectations. For morethan two centuries, our Constitution has weathered every type ofchange because we have been willing to defend it, and because we havebeen willing to question the actions that have been taken in itsdefense. Today is no different. Together, let us chart a way forwardthat secures the life of our nation, while preserving the libertiesthat make our nation worth fighting for. Thank you.