WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Friday made a forceful call to narrow the government's access to millions of Americans' phone records as part of an overhaul of surveillance activities that have raised concerns about official overreach.
The president said he no longer wants the National Security Agency to maintain a database of such records. But he left the creation of a new system to subordinates and lawmakers, many of whom are divided on the need for reform.
In a speech at the Justice Department, Mr. Obama ordered several immediate steps to limit the NSA program that collects domestic phone records, as well as other surveillance practices, which were exposed last year by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Mr. Obama directed that from now on, the government must obtain a court order for each phone number it wants to query in its database of records. Analysts will only be able to review phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, instead of three.
And he ordered a halt to eavesdropping on dozens of foreign leaders and governments who are friends or allies.
The changes mark the first significant constraints the Obama administration has imposed on surveillance programs that expanded dramatically in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But many of the changes could take months, if not longer, to implement. Already, critics from diverse camps -- in Congress and outside of it -- are warning that what he has called for may be unworkable.
Mr. Obama is retaining the vast majority of intelligence programs and capabilities that came to light over the past six months in a deluge of reports based on leaked documents. Even the most controversial capability -- the government's access to bulk phone records, known as metadata -- may well be preserved, although with tighter controls and with the records in the hands of some outside entity. The database holds phone numbers and call lengths and times, but not actual phone call content.
Mr. Obama recognized that others have raised alternatives, such as moving custodianship of the records to the phone companies or an independent third party -- and that such plans face significant logistical and political hurdles.
He gave subordinates including Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. until March 28 to develop a plan to "transition" the bulk data out of the government's possession. Existing authorities for the phone records program are set to expire on that date, requiring reauthorization by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Both in his speech and in his plan's specifics, Mr. Obama straddled competing security and civil liberties imperatives. His proposals are aimed at containing a public backlash Mr. Snowden triggered, but also preserving capabilities U.S. intelligence officials consider critical to preventing another terrorist attack.
Reaction to Mr. Obama's call to end the phone records collection was mixed and underscored the political challenge he faces in achieving his goal.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees' chiefs issued a joint statement focusing on Mr. Obama's remarks that "underscored the importance of using telephone metadata to rapidly identify possible terrorist plots."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., added that they have reviewed the existing NSA bulk collection program and "found it to be legal and effective," indicating they would oppose efforts to end it.
"Ending this dragnet collection will go a long way toward restoring Americans' constitutional rights and rebuilding the public's trust," Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a joint statement. "Make no mistake, this is a major milestone in our longstanding efforts to reform the National Security Agency's bulk collection program."
But many civil liberties groups said Mr. Obama failed at real reform by leaving open the door to third-party storage of records and data retention mandates.
"He doesn't commit to ending the bulk data collection of telephone records," said American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero. "He gets close to understanding the concerns, but he backs away from the real reform, which is to end the bulk data collection."