King: Obama preserves right NSA balance

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, left, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, left, and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the House Intelligence and Homeland Security committees, after President Obama's discussion of National Security Agency surveillance in Washington. (Jan. 17, 2014) Photo Credit: AP

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WASHINGTON -- The changes that President Barack Obama outlined Friday for NSA collection of Americans' phone records will spur a new round of battles in Congress between national security hawks and civil liberties advocates.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and other National Security Agency supporters said they're encouraged that Obama made only what King called "cosmetic changes," leaving data collection programs intact -- and they'll fight to keep it that way.

But Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian lawmaker, vowed to keep fighting to shut down the phone record collections. Obama's "solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration," he said.

With his speech, Obama sought to reassure the public about privacy concerns raised by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks about the agency's programs.

It didn't end the debate.

Privacy advocates praised Obama's proposals, but they said they did not go far enough. "The president should end -- not mend -- the government's collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans' data," said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero.

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NSA backers said they were glad Obama stood by the NSA.

"It was very encouraging that he had good things to say about the NSA," said King, adding, "He pointed out there have been no abuses."

This spring, that debate will move to Congress, which must act on Obama's key proposals before March 28, when the phone record collection program comes up for renewal by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who called Obama's proposals "bold and real steps," said senators from both parties already are working on these issues.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the House will review those plans but "will not erode the operational integrity of critical programs that have helped keep America safe."

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King said he's concerned Obama is extending privacy rights to foreigners -- an issue that likely will come up in congressional debates.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said public confidence will return only after a public debate on the best policy, clear guidelines are set for that policy, and a trusted arbiter is established to ensure the guidelines are followed. That means, he said, the most important Obama proposals are about the NSA programs' arbiter: the secret court.

Obama already ordered the court to declassify and make public its opinions "with broad policy implications" when possible, and he asked Congress to create a panel of privacy advocates who would argue before the court. Now, only NSA lawyers appear before the court.

Schumer said he expects Congress to take up the issue in March. "I think there will be broad consensus," he said, "but there will be some on the left and some on the right who will not be happy with it."

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