The Complex

Inside the White House Meetings to Reform the NSA

President Obama and White House officials met Thursday with members of Congress and privacy and civil liberties groups to discuss potential modifications to NSA surveillance. But the administration gave away little about its plans, which officials said the president could announce as early as next week.

Privacy groups reiterated their call for the administration to end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, according to participants in a meeting with White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. The White House has not committed to ending the program, but reportedly the president has considered handing over the phone data to a third party and requiring the NSA to obtain court approval when it wants to query a suspicious phone number in the database.

Marc Rotenberg, the president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said he wasn't sure how the president will ultimately come down on the issue, but that White House officials underscored that they were listening carefully to suggestions and considering recommendations by experts as well as a presidential review panel.

"They wanted everyone to understand that they're giving this great consideration," Rotenberg told Foreign Policy. He added that Obama could address revelations about NSA monitoring foreigners' communications in his State of the Union Address on January 28, which coincidentally is Data Privacy Day, an occasion for advocacy groups and officials around the world to raise awareness about protecting personal information.

Revelations of NSA spying on foreign leaders and collecting large amounts of communications of foreigners have embarrassed the White House and strained diplomatic ties abroad.

"I think the international dimension will likely play a role in what the president says in his speech," Rotenberg said.

The meeting in the Roosevelt Room lasted more than an hour and stayed mostly focused on the collection of phone records. Other concerns, such as those about the NSA's policy of undermining encryption, received comparatively little discussion, participants said, to the frustration of some privacy reform advocates.

Earlier Thursday, members of Congress met with Obama, and were likewise mostly focused on collection of Americans' phone records by the NSA. They too said the President made no announcements or concrete commitments to change policies.

"He kept his cards close to the vest in terms of what the reform will look like," Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, told FP. He shared his thoughts on the value of different programs and the privacy interests that are implicated but what his ultimate conclusion will be is finding the right balance ..."

"I think he's working his way through," Schiff said. "I'm glad he hasn't made up his mind, otherwise our input wouldn't have much value..." Schiff said he reiterated his position that the phone records program should be restructured, and said the president should reject proposals to store the information with a third party.

"I think telecommunications companies should hold their own data," Schiff said. "Otherwise, the third party will come to be viewed as a surrogate of the NSA."

Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that Obama should explain to the American people why the phone records program is valuable if he intends to keep it.

"I have urged President Obama to bring more transparency to the National Security Agency's intelligence-gathering programs in order to regain the trust of the American people," Goodlatte said. "The President has unique information about the merits of these programs and the extent of their usefulness.?This information is critical to informing Congress on how far to go in reforming the programs."

Saul Loeb / AP


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