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On NSA reforms, tough decisions ahead for Obama

President Obama is facing imminent decisions on if and how to reform the government's surveillance programs and as he readies an announcement, he's been meeting with both lawmakers and the intelligence community.

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 The National Security Agency’s data collection programs have been a subject of debate in Congress and the public documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden led to fresh revelations about the depth and breadth of the agency’s spying.

Mr. Obama is expected to announce any changes ahead of his State of the Union address scheduled for Jan. 28, an announcement that could come as early as next week. He spent part of his holiday vacation in Hawaii reviewing recommendations made by the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which he commissioned. Among the several dozen changes the task force recommended is a provision that would strip the NSA of the phone-records database it currently maintains and hand over control of that database to a third party or to the telephone companies that provided it.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president is still mulling through his options.

“He's not yet finished with that and he is still soliciting input, which he did today, sort of reviewing the scope of the matter and some of the ideas that were presented,” Carney said, though he noted that there may be some aspects of the program that require review even beyond the next few weeks.

More than a dozen lawmakers from the House and Senate Intelligence, Judiciary and Appropriations committees met with Mr. Obama. The group represented a wide spectrum of opinions about the NSA’s programs, from Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has been largely supportive of the program, to Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who have introduced a bill that would end bulk collection.

Lawmakers seconded Carney’s assessment that the president has not yet reached a decision on potential reforms to the NSA.

"The president and his administration are wrestling with the issues," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a vocal privacy advocate who attended the meeting. "It's fair to say that the next few weeks are going to be crunch time in terms of judgments being made in both the administration and the Congress."

Other members are still pushing to curb the program – and want Mr. Obama to be more open about it.

“If the president believes we need a bulk collection program of telephone data, then he needs to break his silence and clearly explain to the American people why it is needed for our national security.  The president has unique information about the merits of these programs and the extent of their usefulness,” said House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., after the meeting. “With each new revelation of the scope of these programs, it’s increasingly clear that we need to take legislative action to reform some of our nation’s intelligence-gathering programs to ensure that they adequately protect Americans’ civil liberties and operate in a sensible manner.”

Mr. Obama also met with top intelligence advisors this week, and a group of privacy advocates sat down with White House staff Thursday. On Friday, technology companies – who have expressed concerns about the NSA’s collection of data through their systems and urged the president to curb surveillance in a meeting last month.

The president seems open to reforms that will increase Americans’ privacy, and is reportedly considering restricting the NSA’s access to mass amounts of data.

"There are ways we can do it, potentially, that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances - that there's sufficient oversight and sufficient transparency," he during a Dec. 20 news conference before leaving for his vacation. Programs like the controversial bulk data collection "could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse."

He may also endorse other reforms, such as adding a public advocate position to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which rules on many of the domestic surveillance decisions, and increasing oversight of National Intelligence Priorities Framework.

Mr. Obama was also supposed to receive a briefing from the semi-independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was created by Congress, but the panel’s report has been delayed until late January and won’t reach him in time

Rebecca Kaplan

Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for

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