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Obama Expected To Say NSA Should Not Hold 'Metadata'

Nicolas Armer

President Obama is expected to announce Friday morning that he is "ordering a transition that will significantly change the handling of what is known as the telephone 'metadata' " that the National Security Agency collects, officials are telling Reuters and NPR.

The wire service, which broke the story, writes that:

"In a nod to privacy advocates, Obama will say he has decided that the government should not hold the bulk telephone metadata, a decision that could frustrate some intelligence officials. In addition, he will order that effectively immediately, 'we will take steps to modify the program so that a judicial finding is required before we query the database,' said [a] senior official, who revealed details of the speech on condition of anonymity.

"While a presidential advisory panel had recommended that the bulk data be controlled by a third party such as the telephone companies, Obama will not offer a specific proposal for who should store the data in the future."

NPR is also working the story. "The review commission suggested that [the medata] records be moved away from the government" to alleviate concerns about whether that violates Americans' civil liberties, NPR's Tom Gjelten said on our newscast this hour. "We're hearing now that the president is likely to suggest major changes in the way those records are stored and searched."

Sources who are in a position to know about the president's decision also tell NPR that "the president is likely" to endorse the panel's recommendation about how and where to store the metadata, Tom added. "The NSA could still search that telephone database for clues into possible terrorist communications, but only with a judicial finding."

The New York Times is reporting that since telecommunications companies "objected to being the repository of the information and no independent third party currently exists ... Mr. Obama will call for further study to decide what to do with the data."

The metadata include information, but not the contents, about millions of phone calls — including those made by Americans, not just those of suspected terrorists overseas.

The Reuters report was the first of the day to signal that Obama will announce he's endorsing at least one of the major recommendations made by an independent review panel he created in the wake of the secrets revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Obama is due to speak at 11 a.m. ET, and earlier previews of his speech indicated he might not propose significant changes.

The Los Angeles Times put it this way:

"As President Obama prepares to unveil new recommendations and rules for government surveillance in a major speech Friday, it is the nation's intelligence agencies that appear to be coming out on top. ... The president already has made it clear that his objective is not to fundamentally change what the NSA does so much as to make Americans, and U.S. allies, more comfortable with it."

USA Today wrote that:

"Privacy and civil liberty advocates say they are bracing for disappointment."

The Washington Post said that:

"Current and former officials familiar with Obama's plans said he will authorize some new privacy protections for foreigners whose data is collected by the NSA and will propose the establishment of a public advocate to represent privacy interests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. ... Obama, officials said, will ask Congress to deliberate on the appropriate boundaries for the phone records collection."

Earlier Friday on Morning Edition, NPR's Gjelten said the president will be speaking to "lots of constituencies" — the public, congress, the courts, the national security establishment and foreign leaders who are worried about the NSA's past surveillance of them.

Also on Morning Edition, NPR's Mara Liasson said the White House contends that turning the NSA issue over to congress "is not a punt ... because next year Congress has to decide whether or not to renew the law that authorizes the surveillance programs."

Obama, Mara added, "knows he can't satisfy everyone — the ACLU, the tech companies, European allies and the intelligence community all have different concerns."

We'll be posting during Obama's address, so come back as 11 a.m. ET approaches. For more background and context, see these earlier posts:

-- Five Changes To The NSA You Might Hear In Obama's Speech

-- Obama's NSA Speech: Just What Eisenhower Warned About?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.