WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s response to the international uproar over the nation’s surveillance programs is leaving Americans with more questions than answers.
Where will millions of phone records be stored? What protections will foreigners have? Which secret documents will be declassified?
In what was designed to be his defining speech on the issue last Friday, Obama announced few specifics.
“For every answer he gave, there are several new questions about how he plans to implement these changes,” said Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Ultimately, the full effect of these reforms remains to be seen.”
Obama directed Attorney General Eric Holder and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, to decide how to proceed on at least a half-dozen sticky issues. He’ll solicit the advice of a divided Congress, where support for changes in the National Security Agency doesn’t fall strictly along party lines. And he ordered up additional studies.
“The president was stronger on principle than prescription,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “The president’s reform blueprint, while bold and courageous, is a first step, leaving a lot of work to be done.”
Obama did announce some changes: Reining in the contentious phone-collection program by requiring court approval each time the data is examined and barring the government from storing the information, halting spying on dozens of foreign leaders and appointing a team of advocates to sometimes appear before the nation’s secret surveillance court, which now hears arguments only from the government.
But he stopped short of the sweeping restrictions that civil liberty advocates had been lobbying for and the ringing endorsement that intelligence officials had hoped for to validate their work.
In some instances, Obama clearly tried to strike a balance between protecting Americans from terrorism and addressing the concerns about privacy. But in other instances, he just didn’t decide.
The president was still grappling with one of the biggest issues — who should store the phone records — late Thursday night before his speech Friday morning at the Justice Department, according to a senior administration official who’s familiar with Obama’s thinking but isn’t authorized to speak publicly. Instead of making a decision, the president asked Holder to devise a possible plan before the secret court is due to reauthorize the program March 28.
James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University who studies the presidency, said Obama hadn’t shied from stating his opinion on some issues — illegal immigration, gun control and climate change, for example — but that the president was conflicted on NSA programs because he thought both sides had merit and almost anything he did would anger one side or the other.
Pfiffner said Obama’s decision to seek additional studies and congressional input took the focus off him and delayed touchy issues, perhaps beneficial to a president who’s seen his approval ratings plunge after a slew of political calamities, including a chaotic start to his health care law and a questionable response to the conflict in Syria.
“Obama is in a difficult situation,” he said. “He’s been very careful. He’s not willing to do very much. Putting the issue off is politically understandable.”
James Lewis, a former State Department employee who now heads the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said changing complicated surveillance programs always takes time.
The president never planned on conducting a full review of the U.S.’s spying programs. He was forced to after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began releasing classified documents last June that showed the agency has been collecting the telephone and email records of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil and spying on a host of global institutions, including the World Bank.
Lawmakers and foreign leaders, civil liberty advocates and intelligence officials began clamoring for a presidential response immediately. Lewis said administration officials spent the first couple of months hoping that the issue would go away. When it didn’t, they launched a study of the surveillance programs internally.
“Some of these things are really hard and they couldn’t agree on them,” Lewis said. “It’s understandable he had to kick some down the road.”
Lewis joked that Obama instead had turned to a time-honored Washington solution: “When in doubt, set up another commission.”
The president has asked Holder, and in some cases Clapper, to determine which future opinions of the secret surveillance court could be declassified, to devise a way to restrict the ability to retain and search communications between Americans and foreigners, to find a mechanism that will allow access to phone records only after court approval, to amend the use of national security letters — a form of administrative subpoena — so they may be publicly released eventually and to develop privacy safeguards for foreigners.
He directed his counselor, John Podesta, to lead a review of data collections and privacy in which government officials will consult with civil liberty advocates, technology experts and business leaders to examine public and private solutions and international norms.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Obama’s approach should prompt her colleagues to act.
“Merely doubling down with more surveillance protocols and bureaucracy is not enough,” she said. “It is up to Congress to make the necessary reforms.”