President Barack Obama plans on reining in the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, but the extent of those measures remains unclear.
“I’ll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA. And… to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence, ” he told television reporter Chris Matthews during a taped interview for MSNBC, according to Politico. He also acknowledged that, while the NSA is blocked by its charter from engaging in domestic surveillance, the agency is “more aggressive” and “not constrained by laws” when it comes to operating outside U.S. borders.
Obama mentioned government whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose leaks of top-secret NSA documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post kicked off months of public debate about the extent of the current surveillance state. “The Snowden disclosures have identified some areas of legitimate concern,” he said. “Some of it has also been highly sensationalized. And—you know, has been painted in a way that’s not accurate.”
But the President defended the NSA’s core mission as a vital one for national security. “We do have people who are trying to hurt us. And they communicate through these same systems,” he said. “I want to everybody to be clear: the people at the NSA, generally, are looking out for the safety of the American people.”
Earlier this week, a new report in The Washington Post suggested that the NSA tracks roughly 5 billion mobile phones every day, dumping the location records into a massive database for agency analysts and others to mine for insight. NSA officials told the Post they had no way of knowing how many Americans might have found their data swept up in that massive collection process. In the Matthews interview, Obama suggested that he was “sensitive” to the privacy issues raised by the report, but that a “big system of checks and balances” actively works to keep Americans’ information safe.
In the meantime, Obama uses a customized Blackberry with specialized encryption. “I’m not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone,” he told people at the White House Dec. 4, according to Agence France-Presse (hat tip to Tom’s Guide for the link). After all, he wouldn’t want anyone to pick up on what he was saying, would he?