President Obama flags podium

The President’s Speech (on the NSA)

Shortly after 11am this morning, President Barack Obama addressed many of the current issues surrounding the questions of surveillance and privacy in our time. The ongoing War on Terror and the ever-changing technological landscape pose new challenges to the often-tenuous balance between national security and civil liberties.

The National Security Agency information leak by Edward Snowden last summer reignited debate on these issues and led to much outrage about the practices of the NSA, which collects metadata on the American public under the PRISM program, enshrined in Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 2008. Digital surveillance by the NSA is authorized under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.

President Obama touched on an American legacy of intelligence in times of war and heightened national security concerns, from Paul Revere to the Cold War, before launching into a discussion of how the post-9/11 world has transformed the way the United States (and the rest of the world) view national security and surveillance. The president defended the reach of the NSA into digital communications as a key tool in the U.S.’s defenses against attack, while acknowledging that although secrecy is necessary, it also means public debate is limited at best.

The president also gave personal insight into this question, saying:

“The challenge is getting the details right, and that’s not simple. Indeed, during the course of our review, I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents, like Dr. King, who were spied on by their own government; as a President who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.

I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk meta-data.”

He went on to describe four main steps to reform the way NSA conducts surveillance as a means to better ensure the American public that their privacy rights are being protected:

  1. A new presidential directive for American signals intelligence activities in the United States and abroad: “We will review decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis, so that our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior national security team.”
  2. Reform of programs and procedures to create greater transparency for surveillance and safeguard privacy of U.S. citizens: “I am directing the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Attorney General, to annually review – for the purpose of declassification – any future opinions of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] Court with broad privacy implications, and to report to me and Congress on these efforts. To ensure that the Court hears a broader range of privacy perspectives, I am calling on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”
  3. More protections for surveillance conducted under Section 702: “I am asking the Attorney General and DNI to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government’s ability to retain, search, and use in criminal cases, communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702.”
  4. Greater transparency in the use of National Security Letters, which are issued by the FBI and may require companies to provide information to the government without letting the subject of the investigation know it is occurring: “I have therefore directed the Attorney General to amend how we use National Security Letters so this secrecy will not be indefinite, and will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.”

In his speech, President Obama went into greater detail about the amendments to the programs, and spoke in-depth on the relationship between American intelligence agencies and diplomacy and foreign policy.

If you would like to read more about what the president proposed and how American surveillance activities connect to our international relations, the full text of the president’s speech is available here.

One theme the president – perhaps unsurprisingly – reiterated throughout the address was the unique position and leadership role of the United States on surveillance, national security, and civil liberties issues around the world. In closing, President Obama reminded his viewers that:

“No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account. But let us remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity.

As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual empowerment rather than government control.”

This is an important message and closing thought – it is precisely our singular role and legacy on these issues that requires American citizens to persistently challenge the government on these questions. Healthy debate is necessary in our society, as it encourages us to forever search for that balance between our freedoms and our safety. This speech is a new opportunity to recharge the discussion, and as reforms get implemented, it is our responsibility to share our opinions and engage on this crucial issue of the 21st century.



In 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism adopted “Civil Liberties and National Security: Striking the Proper Balance,” a resolution that confirms the necessity of consistent reevaluation of our security measures, and our understanding of a new era in American and world history. In always engaging in these difficult conversations, we are reminded of our dedication our core constitutional rights and the American commitment to civil liberties, even if we find ourselves in a new technological and national security arena.


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Sarah Greenberg

About Sarah Greenberg

Sarah Greenberg is the Senior Legislative Assistant at the RAC. She graduated in 2013 from Cornell University, and is originally from New York, NY. Sarah was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in 2013-2014.


  1. Surveilling the Landscape of Privacy Concerns | Fresh Updates from RAC - February 20, 2014

    […] In a landmark speech this January, President Obama outlined his concerns, goals and plans for reform of the National Security Agency. A month later, there continue to be developments on the right-to-privacy front. On February 6th, the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, announced two changes the NSA metadata program. Section 215, the “bulk telephony metadata program,” will no longer exist in its current form. It will transition to a new system that addresses national security needs without keep these large amounts of information […]

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