When the disclosures from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden first began to be published by The Guardian and Washington Post, the immediate reaction of President Barack Obama was not much different from the reaction of NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, who now believed his agency was under some kind of unwarranted siege.
It now seems the bulk surveillance program, which collects all American consumers’ phone records, which Obama and others in government have spent months defending, will never have the public’s support. And now that Americans know about the nature of this once kept secret program, Obama and members of Congress that sought to defend the surveillance are having to support “ending” the program in some way or another.
Obama’s initial comments in June were that the surveillance represented “modest encroachments on privacy.” It was under “very strict supervision by all three branches of government.” The “right balance” had been struck. And, “If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”
The president appeared on “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS that same month and sought to explain to Americans that the NSA could not listen to telephone calls or target emails, which is not true. He downplayed the bulk collection of phone records saying, “All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place,” declining to acknowledge how collecting the metadata of phone calls can violate privacy more than the collection of the content of phone calls.
By August, a shift began. Obama accepted that Americans had “questions” about surveillance. “Confidence” had to be restored. That was when reexamining bulk surveillance first became a possibility. He insisted in September that a lot of checks and balances were in place to “avoid a surveillance state” but suggested “it may be that the laws that are currently in place are not sufficient to guard against the dangers of us being able to track so much.”
An NSA review group was appointed by Obama to review US surveillance programs. It ended up releasing a report that recommended the NSA stop storing bulk telephone metadata under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Private providers or a private third party should hold the data.
The USA Freedom Act, bipartisan legislation that would end the dragnet collection of phone records, was introduced by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner.