It’s been about seven months since Edward Snowden leaked NSA materials, launching an international debate over the scope of U.S. surveillance efforts. Soon after the revelations were made public, President Obama assembled an independent panel tasked with reviewing existing surveillance policies and recommending possible reforms.
The panel’s report was completed last month, leaving Obama with a decision to make about how many changes, if any, to make to the status quo.
In a speech this morning at the Justice Department, the president sketched out his vision of reforms. Whether he went far enough is a matter of perspective. A senior administration official told reporters this morning, “This is without a doubt the most significant reforms in our surveillance programs since President Obama took office.”
And while that’s true, that doesn’t necessarily mean the reforms are especially sweeping. Adam Serwer highlighted the issue that’s arguably the most controversial:
Obama [announced] that a foreign intelligence surveillance court judge will now have to approve queries to the database holding information collected under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Currently, the agency can acquire telephone communications records in bulk with a court order, but the NSA does not require judicial approval to search the database. The requirement to seek the approval of a judge will go into effect immediately, even without legislation from Congress. […]The president will also say that the NSA should no longer hold the data, but he will stop short of saying that it should not be collected at all. Obama will recommend that the attorney general and intelligence community work together with Congress to decide how the data should be held.
If that sounds a little vague, that’s because it is. The president appears to have laid out a goal more than a policy, with the details yet to be worked out among policymakers.
What else is part of the new White House policy? Brian Fung sketched out a variety of other changes on which the president is moving forward:
The NSA won’t get to decide when it pulls information from the phone records database.Until now, intelligence analysts have been able to “query” the database so long as they’ve determined a given phone number is subject to “reasonable, articulable suspicion.” Critics have said that gives the NSA too much power to snoop on people. So Obama is going to require that whenever an analyst wants to query the database, they’ll have to get permission from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court first. The FISA court has not previously been in the position of approving individual requests.When the NSA does query the database, they can’t go as far.Given a certain phone number, the NSA is currently allowed to look at any phone number that is connected to the first, any number that is connected to that number, and any number that is connected to that number. It’s what people in the industry call the “three hops” rule, for the three degrees of separation from the original number. Effective immediately, however, analysts will now be limited to making just two hops. It’ll limit the range of people who will potentially fall under the NSA’s gaze.
It’s not the most substantive angle, but I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention how much of the speech was classic Obama – far from demonizing one side of the debate or the other, or blaming anyone for their role in the larger argument, the president went out of his way to identify with both sides. Obama very much seems to identify with proponents and opponents of expansive surveillance – he has instinctual discomfort with NSA overreach, but he nevertheless believes surveillance is necessary for security.
“Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached. Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends upon the law to constrain those in power.“I make these observations to underscore that the basic values of most Americans when it comes to questions of surveillance and privacy converge far more than the crude characterizations that have emerged over the last several months. Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties. The challenge is getting the details right, and that’s not simple. Indeed, during the course of our review, I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents, like Dr. King, who were spied on by their own government; as 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.”
He’s sympathetic to the ACLU’s demands for greater protections and he sees the NSA’s work as valuable. The president celebrates those asking tough questions and he defends those who, in the name of national security, struggle to be forthcoming when answering those questions.
And so the debate continues.
UPDATE: related video: