WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama managed to buy himself some breathing room among surveillance critics in his own party Friday, even as he proposed a series of reforms that passed muster with some of the National Security Agency's staunchest defenders.
The administration has been forced to battle back against civil liberties proponents on the left and right ever since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked reams of data on the breathtaking sweep of the agency's data collection and spying.
Even as he acknowledged the need for reform, Obama forcefully defended the NSA's stunning dragnet as critical to national security interests both in the United States and overseas. He even offered grudging remarks that implicitly acknowledged the role Snowden played in starting the surveillance debate.
Obama pledged to halt the bulk phone tracking program as it currently exists -- but not to end it outright. Instead, the NSA will reduce on its own the number of "hops" it can take from an initial phone number suspected of associations with terrorism to other, most often innocent, phone contacts for purposes of analysis. Court approval will be required before those queries can be undertaken. And eventually, he said, the bulk phone records, or metadata, will be transferred out of the NSA's possession.
"It was better than I expected it to be," said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee who attended the White House announcement and a staunch defender of the NSA. "Basically the system stays intact, even on the metadata."
Even House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whose relationship with the president has grown increasingly strained, offered no criticism of the proposed reforms, instead panning Obama only for doing too little to explain the need for massive data collection and spying.
"I look forward to learning more about how the new procedure for accessing data will not put Americans at greater risk," Boehner said in a statement. "And the House will review any legislative reforms proposed by the administration."
Perhaps the NSA's most important backers, the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees, issued a joint statement praising Obama.
“Today President Obama gave a strong speech in defense of the need to collect and use intelligence in order to protect the nation and to prevent terrorist attacks around the world," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). "We strongly agree with his comments in support and praise of the professionals in our intelligence community who do this work while upholding the civil liberties and privacy rights of all Americans."
The reason NSA backers weren't too upset by the changes Obama proposed is that they don't think they will materially alter the programs.
"I wouldn't have put any of these reforms in place, but having said that, I think they are the minimum of what he had to do, especially considering his base and where he's coming from," King said, pointing to the limits on tracing secondary and tertiary phone numbers. "I don't know what the constitutional or statutory reason for that is, why two is safer than three, but again, I think that was a way to calm down the ACLU types. That just seemed to me like a cosmetic compromise."
Indeed, the harshest criticism came from libertarian Republicans, who were not restrained by party loyalty in their comments.
"Nothing the President said today will end the unconstitutional invasion of Americans' privacy," Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) said in a statement.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was equally dismissive, saying Obama's proposals were essentially "the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration."
"The Fourth Amendment requires an individualized warrant based on probable cause before the government can search phone records and e-mails," Paul said in a statement. "I intend to continue the fight to restore Americans' rights through my Fourth Amendment Restoration Act and my legal challenge against the NSA. The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house."
Yet Democrats, some of whom have been just as critical of the NSA, chose to look on the bright side.
"This was a historic day. The president really set a milestone," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), "He called for an end to the bulk collection policy that the government has had. He's called the NSA to turn off the data vacuum, to stow the dragnet, so this is really important. I'm very heartened. I've been a voice in the wilderness, and sometimes I felt like I was just shouting at the end of the wind."
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), meanwhile, told The Huffington Post it was a "great speech," adding that he was pleasantly surprised by the president's response to privacy concerns.
"It did," Conyers said, when asked if the speech went further he anticipated. "The metadata and the general privacy concerns were very important to me, and I believed that he's going to keep those [issues] in front of NSA and all of our intelligence agencies."
Even Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the more ardent backers of civil liberties in Congress, declared, "This goes in the right direction."
Despite the praise, Democrats suggested they intended to hold the president to the spirit of his remarks.
"I think it's clear, though, that we still need to pass some legislation to make clear ... that for access to the data that are collected, you should need a warrant, not just a CIA analyst's decision," Nadler said. "We have to enshrine this into law, because as good as the president's intention may be, one cannot guarantee the intentions of the next president or the one after that."
Other lawmakers said that even after the president's long and detailed speech, they still had unanswered questions about NSA reform.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), for instance, noticed that Obama did not mention recommendations his own panel on intelligence reform made about cryptography, a vital issue in her Silicon Valley district. "He didn't address all of the [panel's] recommendations," Lofgren said. "He took a long time with the speech as it was. The question is, if he didn't mention it in the speech, is he rejecting the other recommendations? I don't want to assume that's true."
Nadler added that there are "a lot of open questions," especially concerning when a warrant is required.
"The bigger question is, who can query the data? And not just who, but under what circumstances? I think you should need a warrant to query the data -- that's been our entire history," Nadler said. "We put the Fourth Amendment into the Constitution because we opposed the British general warrants which said, tell the officers of the king anything he wants to know. Retaining all this data and allowing a CIA analyst to say, we want to hear the actual conversation on the phone call without a warrant, is recreating the general warrant we rebelled against 250 years ago."
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has proposed legislation to take all the metadata out of the hands of the government and leave it with phone companies, noted that Congress will ultimately have to act, since the section of the Patriot Act governing NSA surveillance is set to expire next year.
"At the end of the day, the most significant factor driving the Congress will be the fact that this program sunsets in 18 months," Schiff said, "So those that don't want to change the program at all know that clock is ticking."
"Remember: Section 215, which is the section that enables all of this stuff, expires next year," Nadler said. "I think I can say that if we don't change it, it will not be renewed."
Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.