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Obama's NSA speech: Five burning questions

President Barack Obama’s speech Friday outlined new changes to national intelligence gathering practices, but it left out a lot of specifics.

Ben Rhodes discusses whether the reforms to the NSA program will keep the U.S. safe once they are implemented.

While the proposals would reduce some of the latitude given to the National Security Agency in the name of homeland security, will they be enough to assuage a skeptical public? What’s Congress’ role in approving or implementing the president’s plan? And what does this mean for irked foreign allies?

Here are five big questions left in the wake of his proposal:

1. Who will store the metadata?

 Perhaps the biggest news from Obama’s speech was his call for the U.S. government to no longer house the bulk data of phone records – or metadata – and give that to another entity. The rub, however, is that even the president doesn’t know what that other entity should be.

In his speech, Obama recognized that accessing the records through phone and internet companies could raise new privacy concerns, and he said forming an entirely new third-party organization could create legal ambiguities.

So he has asked for time to come up with a solution.

"I have instructed the intelligence community and Attorney General to … develop options for a new approach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that [the NSA program] was designed to address without the government holding this metadata,” he said. “They will report back to me with options for alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28."

2. Will Congress act?

President Obama assures Americans that the men and women working for the National Security Agency are not "abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your e-mails."

 Obama also called for Congress’ cooperation in reforming these NSA programs. “I am open to working with Congress to ensure that we build a broad consensus for how to move forward, and am confident that we can shape an approach that meets our security needs while upholding the civil liberties of every American."

But can a Congress that has struggled to pass the most basic legislation – remember last October’s government shutdown? – round up the votes to pass any reforms? There would need to be cooperation from the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled Congress. And both parties have their national-security hawks, as well as privacy advocates. 

For his part, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it’s crucial for Congress to act. “It is more important than ever for Congress to exercise effective oversight and, where necessary, to enact legislation to address these issues which are vital to American national security."

3. Will the Supreme Court act before Congress does?

 It’s looking likely that the U.S. Supreme Court could rule on the constitutionality of the NSA’s metadata program in the next couple of years. In December, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon – appointed by George W. Bush – said that the program was probably unconstitutional. But then two weeks later, another federal judge – William H. Pauley III, appointed by Bill Clinton – said it was legal.  It will take some time before the issue gets to the high court, however. 

4. How will foreign leaders and countries react?

 A significant portion of Obama’s remarks addressed the complaints of foreign leaders – like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff – about the NSA’s international spying.

In an effort to "rebuild trust," President Obama says "I have made clear to the intelligence community that, unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and governments of our close friends and allies."

While the president suggested that all countries gather intelligence – “There is a reason why Blackberrys and iPhones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room” -- he stressed that the United States would use its data-collection programs only for counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, and troop-protection activities. And he emphasized that the federal government would only spy on foreign leaders when there is a “compelling national security purpose."

5. Does this assuage a skeptical public?

Farther removed from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American public has grown more skeptical about surveillance programs and their risks to privacy.

In Dec. 2001 – just months after 9/11 – an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 55 percent of Americans saying that they were more worried that the U.S. wouldn’t go far enough in monitoring the activities and communications of potential terrorists living the country, versus just 31 percent who were more worried that those things would go too far in violating privacy rights.

But now those numbers are reversed: According to a July 2013 NBC/WSJ poll, 56 percent were more worried that the government would go too far, compared with only 36 percent who were more worried that it wouldn’t go far enough.

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