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Obama’s NSA announcement just the starting point

January 16, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — The plan that President Barack Obama is expected to announce Friday for overhauling the government’s sweeping surveillance program is just the starting point. The reality is few changes could happen quickly without agreements from a divided Congress and federal judges.

The most contentious debate probably will be over the future of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records from millions of Americans. In his highly anticipated speech, Obama is expected to back the idea of changing the program. But he will leave the specifics to Congress, according to officials briefed on the White House review.

That puts key decisions in the hands of lawmakers who are at odds over everything from whether the collections should continue to who should store the data.

Obama’s speech marks the end of a months-long White House review caused by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden’s revelations about the secret government surveillance programs both at home and abroad. The disclosures restarted a debate over surveillance, both on Capitol Hill and among outraged allies overseas.

The uncertain road ahead raises questions about the practical impact of the surveillance decisions Obama will announce in his speech. The intelligence community is pressing for the core of the spy programs to be left largely intact, while privacy advocates fear the president’s changes may be largely cosmetic.

Stephen Vladeck, a national security law expert at American University, said the key questions will be “how much of this reform conversation is going to be about curtailing the specific surveillance programs and how much of it is going to be instead about improving the checks and balances on the programs that already exist.”

For Obama, changing the overseas spying program may be easier than implementing domestic reforms. On its own, the administration can enact two international surveillance changes officials say the president supports: extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens and tightening the protocols for decisions on spying on foreign leaders.

Still, it’s unclear whether those steps will be enough to soothe international anger.

One move that has gained support from both the president and lawmakers of both parties is the appointment of an independent privacy advocate to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secretive court that approves spying on Americans.

Obama has indicated he will back the proposal, which was one of 46 recommendations he received from a White House-appointed commission. But a senior U.S. district judge declared this week that the advocate role was unnecessary.

Even supporters acknowledge that Congress’ political paralysis and the looming midterm elections for many in Congress in November could hurt the chances for swift passage of such a novel legal experiment.

Those factors also could hamper a debate over the future of Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the measure used to authorize bulk collections of telephone records from millions of Americans. While Obama is expected to embrace the concept of reforming the program, he’ll leave it to Congress to decide how to accomplish that, including a sensitive decision over possibly moving the data from the NSA to the phone providers or another third party.

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Associated Press writer Tracy Brown contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC