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Obama Announces NSA and Surveillance Policy Reforms

Photo credit: Rena Schild/Shutterstock.com
Photo credit: Rena Schild/Shutterstock.com

After a months-long review of US intelligence and surveillance practices, Obama has approved a new presidential directive to strengthen executive branch oversight of the decisions made about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets, along with a series of reforms. These will be reviewed on an annual basis, “so that our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior national security team,” he said.

While he noted that the purpose of espionage and intelligence gathering is to, well, gather intelligence, often in a way that must be kept secret, the reforms "should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe,” he added.

When it comes to the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, arguably the most controversial piece of the Snowden revelations, Obama is putting into place a few additional privacy safeguards. For one, the program will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three. And, the administration will explore how the storage of the data can be reformed, by either having individual phone companies simply retain it, or by hiring a third-party to do so – in both cases, there are potential issues with accountability and logistics. A fact-finding task force will thus examine the options and report back to the President on potential alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28.

In general, the president defended the practice, noting that the administration’s review of surveillance practices has turned up no misuse of the data. He also reiterated that the program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the names of people making calls, but rather just a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of those calls. That metadata can be queried if and when there is a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.

“In sum, the program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans,” he said. “Rather, it consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead – phone records that the companies already retain for business purposes. The Review Group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused. And I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.”

He went on to say that transparency is another piece of the puzzle – after noting that the government has declassified more than 40 opinions and orders of the so-called “secret” Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – including those involving the Section 702 program targeting foreign individuals overseas and the Section 215 telephone metadata program, he said that the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General will be tasked with annually reviewing, for the purpose of declassification, any future opinions of the FISA court that have broad privacy implications. The president also called on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases.

Additionally, Obama said the adminstration would review how national security letters are used, which can require companies to provide specific information regarding investigations to the government without disclosing the orders to the subject of the investigation. That secrecy toward the subject will no longer be indefinite, he said, and will terminate within a fixed time “unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.” From now on, the government will also increase the amount of information that communications providers can make public about the letters.

And finally, the administration will institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government’s ability to retain, search and use communications between Americans and foreign citizens that are incidentally collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows the government to intercept the communications of foreign targets overseas. He didn’t, however, specify what those reforms will be.

The reforms are arguably rather minor given the outrage at the level of domestic spying that the Snowden-leaked documents have shown. But Obama painted a picture of the fine line that the NSA and other security agencies face.

“We have real enemies and threats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them,” he said. “We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications – whether it’s to unravel a terrorist plot; to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange; to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised; or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts.”

He also said that it is “hard to overstate” the transformation America’s intelligence community had to go through after 9/11:

“Our agencies suddenly needed to do far more than the traditional mission of monitoring hostile powers and gathering information for policymakers – instead, they were asked to identify and target plotters in some of the most remote parts of the world, and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by their very nature, cannot be easily penetrated with spies or informants.”

But Obama also acknowledged that government overreach becomes more acute in the digital age. “This is particularly true when surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws,” he noted. “For all these reasons, I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became President.”

He added, “The combination of increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats. But the government collection and storage of such bulk data also creates a potential for abuse.”

As for Edward Snowden, Obama’s comments were short but to the point:

“Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations. I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”

 

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