In 2013, following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of government surveillance, President Obama convened an independent review panel to study whether the National Security Agency (NSA) needed to be reined in.
Several months later, Obama has announced that he will enact some major changes in how the NSA collects data, but his decisions might still infuriate privacy advocates who wanted him to do more about the agency’s surveillance tactics.
In a January 17 speech, Obama suggested that the nation’s intelligence apparatus had to rapidly adapt to a new threat environment in the wake of 9/11. “They were now asked to identify and target plotters in some of the most remote parts of the world,” he said. The NSA and other agencies responded by building tools and networks capable of vacuuming up enormous amounts of digital information; Obama insisted the programs had saved many lives all over the world, even as he acknowledged that those processes had resulted in the capturing of bulk data on ordinary civilians.
“The power of new technologies means there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do,” he added.
Obama claimed that he maintained a “healthy skepticism” of the NSA’s programs after taking office, and that he instituted new rules and checks on the intelligence community even before Snowden’s revelations. “What I did not do was stop these programs wholesale,” he said, because he didn’t see those agencies as “cavalier” with the data of U.S. citizens. “They’re not abusing authorities to listen to your private phone calls,” he said. “What sustains those who work at NSA and these other agencies through all these pressures is the knowledge that their dedication plays a central role in the defense of our nation.”
Obama told the assembled media that he didn’t feel “complacent” about the reach and power of the NSA programs. After skipping past Snowden’s whistleblowing (“I won’t dwell on Mister Snowden’s actions or his motivations,” he said), he suggested that some of those programs needed to be reformed to maintain the comfort of the American people. “The work has begun” on those reforms, he said.
Obama’s reforms will stop the NSA from storing telephone metadata on its own servers (as part of Program 215), but the actual location of the new repository—whether hosted by private companies or some sort of third party—remains unclear. “Obama will ask Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials for recommendations on how best to maintain the data,” reported Politico, which was briefed on the matter by government officials ahead of the President’s speech. Obama has ordered that the transition away from the existing program will proceed in two steps; as part of that process, he will direct the Attorney General to work with the legal system to ensure that the resulting database can be queried only as the result of judicial process or during an emergency.
As a part of those new steps, the NSA will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization. (That degree of separation, it must be said, still allows the agency to capture information on an enormous amount of people.)
In addition, companies will have the opportunity to reveal more about government requests for information, long a complaint by Google and other tech firms who felt muzzled in what they could report to the public. Until this point, those companies’ transparency reports could only list certain government requests (such as National Security Letters) as a range, rather than a single number.
Obama is strengthening executive-branch oversight of intelligence programs via executive order, with annual reviews of targets and missions by senior members of the President’s national security team. The Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General will review whether to reveal decisions made by the FISA court that oversees the NSA’s actions, which could go a long way to easing some criticisms that the legal protections for the intelligence community aren’t transparent enough.
A new directive will also clearly proscribe what the U.S. will (and will not) do with regard to spying on foreign nationals. Obama suggested that the U.S. doesn’t spy to give the country an economic advantage or suppress dissenting opinions; instead, this directive will publicly limit the NSA to a relatively narrow security mission.
“The United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security,” he said. “This applies to foreign leaders, as well.”
What’s at stake in this debate, he added near the end of his speech, is how “we remain true to who we are in a world that’s changing at dizzying speed.” Whether his public statements translate into a different approach to government information gathering, though, is an open question.
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