WASHINGTON — Not long before President Obama unveiled his plans for NSA reforms today, a senior White House official stressed that “we have not determined that there has been abuse in these programs.”
Still, the administration is going forward with a package to revise signals intelligence programs due to “the risk of potential abuse.”
That includes several recommendations of the Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies formed after the fallout from NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations on the mass collection of metadata. Reforms include an annual review of FISA court opinions to potentially declassify those with broad privacy implications, restrictions on the government’s legal ability to collect communications between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, and a “transition” away from the bulk collection of metadata to “only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three” while exploring storing the data with a third party. Communications providers will be able “to make public more information than ever before about the orders they have received to provide data to the government.”
The White House is also promising to stop spying on world leaders’ communications, something that has rankled heads of state from Brazil to Germany and beyond. An officer at the State Department will be appointed to “coordinate our diplomacy on issues related to technology and signals intelligence.”
In his speech at the Justice Department today, Obama claimed, “I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became president.”
“What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale, not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” he said.
However, the president added, “It was clear to me in observing our intelligence operations on a regular basis that changes in our technological capabilities were raising new questions about the privacy safeguards currently in place.”
“In fact, during the course of our review, I’ve often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own government,” Obama said. “And as president, a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.”
Obama also issued a new presidential directive today to “clearly prescribe what we do and do not do when it comes to our overseas surveillance.”
“To begin with, the directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the e- mails or phone calls of ordinary folks,” Obama said. “I’ve also made it clear that the United States does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their ethnicity, or race, or gender, or sexual orientation or religious beliefs.”
“In this directive I have taken the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas. I have directed the DNI, in consultation with the attorney general, to develop these safeguards, which will limit the duration that we can hold personal information, while also restricting the use of this information. The bottom line is that people around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures. This applies to foreign leaders as well.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Obama took “a measured and thoughtful approach” that was “focused on striking the right balance” between privacy and intelligence.
“As intelligence professionals, we have historically preferred to avoid the spotlight, but we know that for the foreseeable future, the public will remain focused on what we do and how we do it,” Clapper said, promising to “work with our oversight committees to implement the president’s reforms” in the coming weeks. “To build on and maintain the trust of the American people and our international partners, we must embrace the president’s call for transparency.”
The leaders of the congressional intelligence committees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), said in a joint statement that they “strongly agree” with Obama’s approach.
“We are also pleased the president underscored the importance of using telephone metadata to rapidly identify possible terrorist plots, a gap that existed on September 11, 2001, and which has been closed through the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. As the president said, this is a capability that is ‘critical’ and must be ‘preserved,’” Feinstein and Rogers said.
“The president announced his intent to seek approvals from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court prior to querying the Section 215 database. If instituted, that approval process must be made faster in the future than it was in the past—when it took up to nine days to gain Court approval for a single search. We encourage the White House to send legislation with the president’s proposed changes to Congress so they can be fully debated.”
Three other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who have been critical of the privacy implications of NSA surveillance welcomed the proposals but said they don’t go far enough.
“In particular, we will work to close the ‘back-door searches’ loophole and ensure that the government does not read Americans’ emails or other communications without a warrant. We will work to ensure that intelligence activities do not recklessly undermine confidence in American IT products and American IT employers. We will also continue to press for meaningful reforms of the outdated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court process. This should include the establishment of a strong, independent advocate to ensure that the Court hears both sides of the argument,” Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said in a joint statement.
“We take seriously Ben Franklin’s admonition that a society that trades essential liberties for short-term security risks losing both. Today’s announcement does not include all the reforms we have sought. The president has listened to some of the advice of his independent panel of experts and endorsed some of the reforms we have long advocated. The fight to protect liberty and increase security is far from over.”
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the author of the Patriot Act who has said that the government is now twisting the law’s intention, said “the bottom line is real reform cannot be done by presidential fiat.”
“Some of his proposals I agree with, others I don’t,” Sensenbrenner said. “The president and intelligence community have repeatedly misled Congress and the American people and lack credibility for reform. The most effective way for the president to restore trust in the intelligence community is to endorse the USA FREEDOM Act, which strikes the proper balance between privacy and security. This bill would make permanent the good intentions of the president and address some of the omissions in his speech where Americans’ liberties need greater protection.”