Obama eyes major NSA overhaul

Alli McCracken joins activists protesting the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA outside the Justice Department, January 17, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
Alli McCracken joins activists protesting the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA outside the Justice Department, January 17, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
Two months ago, President Obama delivered an important speech on the National Security Agency and its once-secret program on bulk data collection. At the time, the president stressed broad principles -- he wanted to change the status quo on collecting communications data, but he also saw a role for NSA data in national security -- and ordered an internal review of possible changes.
The review, intended to coincide with a reauthorization for the NSA program, was to produce a plan by March 28 -- this Friday.
And according to Charlie Savage, the administration is poised to unveil a new approach, which, among other things, ends the controversial NSA program.

Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans' calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order. [...] The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said. They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or "hops," removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies.

As is always the case, evaluating a program based on a leaked blueprint is inherently tricky, and real scrutiny will depend on details. That said, the reforms outlined in the New York Times piece appear to be in line with what privacy advocates and civil libertarians hoped for.
But even assuming the best from the Obama administration, there's a broader area of concern for those eager to see NSA reforms. It's called the United States Congress.
The president's plan for changes will come in the form of proposed legislation, which will need approval from the House and Senate. Given Congress' general inability to complete even mundane tasks, this is likely to be fairly challenging for the institution.
But it'll be especially interesting to see how far-right lawmakers respond to the challenge. It's quite common for conservatives to rail against White House overreach and the fear of "big government" infringing on Americans' privacy. If the rhetoric is sincere, these Republicans should welcome the opportunity to restrict NSA powers and end bulk data collection.
Or perhaps these conservatives aren't as concerned about civil liberties as they suggest and are really just looking for an excuse to blast a president they hold in contempt.
We'll get a much better sense of their true motivations soon enough.