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Obama nearing a decision on intelligence review

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 11:34 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is hosting a series of meetings this week with lawmakers, privacy advocates and intelligence officials as he nears a final decision on changes to the government's controversial surveillance programs.

Obama could announce the changes as early as next week. He's weighing more than 40 recommendations from a presidential review board that proposed restrictions on the National Security Agency's collection of telephone records from millions of Americans.

A separate task force appointed by Congress has also undertaken its own review of the NSA's vast powers. However, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board doesn't expect to issue its report until late January at the earliest, meaning Obama will announce his recommendations before receiving the group's final report.

Board members were meeting with the president at the White House Wednesday and have also held previous meetings with administration officials. Obama was also scheduled to huddle Wednesday with members of the intelligence community, many of whom have been pushing to keep the NSA surveillance programs intact.

On Thursday, Obama planned to meet with a handful of lawmakers. And representatives from privacy groups were scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon with Obama's top lawyer, Kathryn Ruemmler, who has been heading the internal legal review.

That review was spurred by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked details of several secret government programs. Snowden faces espionage charges in the U.S., but has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said this week's meetings "offer the president an opportunity to hear from groups who play an important role in addressing these issues as we begin to wrap up our review."

Sascha Meinrath, a civil liberties advocate who attended previous White House meetings on surveillance, said administration officials could "test the waters" for its planned tweaks.

"This would be their chance to springboard some ideas for what the president is going to say," said Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute. Meinrath will not be at Thursday's meeting, though one of his colleagues planned to attend.

White House officials say Obama is considering nearly all of the review group's recommendations, which include stripping the NSA of its ability to store data in its own facilities and instead shift that storage to the private phone companies. In comments late last year, Obama indicated he may be open to significant changes.

"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," Obama said during a Dec. 20 news conference. He added that programs like the bulk collection of phone records "could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse."

It's unclear why Obama will announce his recommendations before receiving the report from the privacy and civil liberties board. That panel had originally planned to issue its recommendations by December.

One official familiar with the review process acknowledged that some White House officials were puzzled by the board's delay. But they said the report would likely still have strong weight in Congress, where legislators are grappling with several bills aimed at dismantling or preserving the NSA's authority.

The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the board's work by name.

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