Obama Expected to Preserve NSA Programs But Bolster Oversight

By:Major Garrett President Obama will preserve much of the existing counterterrorism surveillance architecture first established under President Bush and expanded and enhanced with new technology under his watch, according to numerous sources briefed on a decision memo presented to Mr. Obama Wednesday.

President Obama will preserve much of the existing counterterrorism surveillance architecture first established under President Bush and expanded and enhanced with new technology under his watch, according to numerous sources briefed on a decision memo presented to Mr. Obama Wednesday. 

  The memo, developed by the president’s national security team and presented by top counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, advises Mr. Obama not to move storage of metadata collected by the National Security Agency, which houses the data now for five years, to individual telephone companies.

Two sources close to the telecommunications industry say individual companies were notified on the recommendation Tuesday and said they expected Mr. Obama to follow the advice.

White House officials would only confirm the existence of the Monaco memo and insisted Mr. Obama had not made a final decision on changes to NSA procedures.

Even so, the question of where to store metadata collected as part of NSA monitoring of phone numbers, dates and location of phone calls loomed large for the White House. Telecommunications companies lobbied White House adviser extensively against shifting storage from the NSA to individual firms.

Among the issues confronting Obama advisers: which companies to choose – would it include only major telephone companies but not those that use voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) technologies; would Facebook, photo-sharing sites, FaceTime or similar web applications be covered; how would the companies securely store the data; and what kind of legal protections would the companies have from being sued if it were successfully hacked.

In the end, sources said Obama advisers saw the shifting of NSA data to telecom firms as too complicated and too cumbersome and there is every expectation Mr. Obama will keep the data under NSA supervision.

Sources also said Mr. Obama is expected to reduce the number of data connections surveillance analysts can use to tie communications of terrors suspects to phone numbers. These so-called “hops” can be used three times by analysts to develop a potential pattern or matrix of sources or terrorist affiliations. Mr. Obama is expected to reduce the acceptable number of “hops” from three to two.

Officials close to the White House process also said Mr. Obama will require higher level approval of any surveillance of foreign leaders or those working closely with a foreign head of state. An internal review found such surveillance could be carried out with relatively low-level approval and Mr. Obama will demand more senior surveillance personnel approve such spying in the future.

Mr. Obama is also expected to recommend placing a privacy advocate within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court process of approving specific phone and data tracking on suspected foreign terrorists or foreign nationals with suspected terrorist ties. Congress would have to approve this change. Mr. Obama has in the past suggested he was leaning toward this reform.

Lastly, administration sources said Mr. Obama has sought recommendations on adding layers of legal approval for new or expanded surveillance actions. Details were unclear, but this might include bringing more lawyers from different agencies into the review and approval process or adding inspectors general to the process of scrutinizing ongoing surveillance tactics and cases. These moves, sources said, would be designed to enhance public confidence in the surveillance programs without fundamentally changing current practices or capabilities.

Over the past month, the president has been mulling the recommendations of a presidential review board and has also met with lawmakers, tech industry leaders, and privacy advocates as he figures out how to proceed with reforming the NSA's surveillance programs. He is scheduled to deliver a highly-anticipated speech outlining his final decisions Friday at the Justice Department.  

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