PRESIDENT Barack Obama has signalled that he may shake up how America’s National Security Agency (NSA) bulk collects and stores personal data following leaks by the former analyst, Edward Snowden.
Obama has not yet made any decisions but would have “a pretty definitive statement about this in January”, he said.
He added that NSA programmes such as collection of telephone records en masse “could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse.”
Speaking at his end-of-year news conference, Obama said: “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.”
He hinted that in future private phone companies might hold the information rather than allowing the NSA to store data in its own facility, in a bid to boost public confidence.
The suggestion of concessions came in the week that a federal judge declared the bulk collection programme unconstitutional. A presidential advisory panel, on which intelligence experts sit, made 46 recommendations for reform.
Significantly, both judge and panel said there was little evidence to suggest any terror plot had been foiled by bulk collection.
Despite the suggestion of reforms, Obama continued to defend the programme. He cited national security and said that the NSA was not doing anything contrary to US law, though he did concede the revelations had shaken the “confidence and trust” of some Americans.
“I have confidence in the fact the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around,” he said. “We may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I’m going to be working very hard on doing that.”
However, he remained critical of Snowden, who he said had caused “unnecessary damage” by leaking documents. He declined to say if he would be offered an amnesty.
On the amnesty issue, Obama said: “I will leave it up to the courts and the attorney general to weigh in on Mr Snowden’s case.”
The NSA bulk collection programme involves sweeping the metadata of every phone call made in the US. The number called, the number from which the call is made and the duration and time of the call are stored. The NSA and Britain’s GCHQ insist the messages are not read or recorded.
Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency, fled the US in late May, taking a huge cache of secret documents. He later surfaced in Hong Kong before travelling to Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum. He now faces spying charges in the US.
During his time on the run, leaks have continued to be published by several newspapers and magazines in the UK, US, and Germany, among others.
On Friday, more details of people and institutions targeted by UK and US surveillance were published by the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel.
A European Union commissioner, humanitarian organisations and Israeli officials including a prime minister were among 1,000 targets reported.
It was also suggested that more than 60 countries were targets of the NSA and GCHQ.
The European Commission said that the practice would “deserve our strongest condemnation” if confirmed.
“This is not the type of behaviour that we expect from strategic partners, let alone from our own member states”, it said in a statement.
News that the NSA had monitored the mobile telephone of German chancellor Angela Merkel triggered a diplomatic row between Berlin and Washington when revealed in October.
In other developments, the Obama administration has dropped its objection to the publication of a secret court opinion on the US Patriot Act, which authorises the NSA bulk collections.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School had asked for a ruling on the constitutionality of the data collection process.
The US justice department said it had been reluctant to see the opinion published because it dealt with the subject of an FBI counterterrorism inquiry. Some information in the opinion could tip off the subject or his associates, the justice department argued. It agreed only to release non-classfied information which does not impinge on ongoing criminal investigations.
Alex Abdo, a staff attorney at the ACLU National Security Project, said: “We welcome the government’s decision to agree to release portions of the court’s opinion. But we are troubled that the government agreed to release this information only when required to justify itself to a court. At the very least, this demonstrates the importance of judicial scrutiny in the face of government claims of secrecy.”