Obama hints at changing NSA phone records collection

At year-end news conference, president says no decisions made yet, but program could be redesigned to thwart abuse

President Barack Obama during a news conference at the White House on Friday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In his annual year-end news conference Friday, President Barack Obama suggested that he may be ready to make some changes in the bulk collection of Americans' phone records to allay the public's concern about privacy. He also answered questions about the Affordable Care Act.

The president said he has not yet made any decisions about the collection programs of the National Security Agency (NSA). But among the dozens of recommendations he is considering, he hinted that he may strip the NSA of its ability to store data in its own facilities and instead shift that storage to private phone companies. 

"There are ways we can do it, potentially, that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances — that there's sufficient oversight and sufficient transparency," Obama said during the news conference before leaving for Hawaii for the holidays. 

Programs like the bulk collection of phone records "could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse."

The bulk collection program sweeps up metadata for every phone call made in the U.S. — it collects the number called, the number from which the call is made and the duration and time of the call.

"There was evidence, and there continues to be evidence, that the particular program had not been abused in the way it was used," Obama said. "We do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA is not spying on Americans."

An advisory panel appointed by the president offered 46 recommendations in the wake of public outrage over the government's vast surveillance. The panel recommended that phone records be stored at the private phone companies, but it also called for the government to obtain permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to access them.

The president did not address that option, which means the government could still have unfettered access to the data. He continued to defend the need for this program for national security reasons. Obama can reject, accept or amend any of the recommendations, and he spoke generally about the possible need for some changes but not about how much, if at all, the programs would change.

The president said he is now evaluating the recommendations and would make a definitive statement in January about which of the recommendations would be feasible.

Addressing NSA surveillance

Obama's hint at concessions came the same week a federal judge declared the bulk collection program unconstitutional and the presidential advisory panel suggested reforms. Both the judge and the panel said there was little evidence any terror plot had been thwarted by the program, known as section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

The federal judge who declared the NSA's vast phone data collection unconstitutional, Richard Leon, called the operation "Orwellian" in scale and said there was little evidence that its gargantuan inventory of phone records from American users had prevented a terrorist attack. However, he stopped his ruling Monday from taking effect, pending a likely government appeal.

Obama offered a broad defense of the surveillance programs revealed over the past six months after former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden disclosed classified materials. Though he insisted there has been no abuse of the information collected and stored on Americans, he said he understands that the public is concerned about privacy. 

"The question we're going to have to ask is, 'Can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that in fact the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing?"' Obama said.

"I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around," he said, adding that he understands the potential for abuse can change as technologies evolve. "We may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I'm going to be working very hard on doing that."

Defending 'Obamacare'

Obama also defended his administration's decision to delay for some people the requirement to buy medical insurance under the Affordable Care Act, explaining that the rollout of his signature domestic policy is a "messy process."

Officials said late on Thursday that people whose insurance plans were canceled because of new standards under the law may be able to claim a "hardship exemption" to the requirement that all Americans must have coverage by March 31 or face a penalty. The sudden change came four days before the deadline to sign up for coverage, which starts on Jan. 1 under the law known as Obamacare.

"I've said before, this is a messy process," Obama said during the news conference. "When you try to do something this big, affecting this many people, it's going to be hard."

He also pointed to a surge in enrollment, after the disastrous launch of the glitch-ridden HealthCare.gov website resulted in fewer than 27,000 people signing up through the federal marketplace in October.

Officials said that more than 1 million people have signed up so far for new coverage under Obamacare through state and federal marketplaces. 

Still, there are lingering problems. Consumers were unable to access HealthCare.gov for a few hours during the middle of the day on Friday, a critical time before the Dec. 23 signup deadline. Officials said they needed to repair a website error that occurred overnight.

A handful of states have extended their signup deadlines past the Dec. 23 date set by the federal government, adding an extra element of confusion for consumers. 

Al Jazeera and wire services. Courtney Brooks contributed to this report.

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