Obama NSA reforms: How far did they go?

In his speech Friday outlining reforms to the NSA, President Obama acknowledged that many people have become concerned about the extent of NSA activities. Probably the most important reform dealt with the program to collect phone metadata.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama talks about National Security Agency surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington. Seeking to calm a furor over US surveillance, the president called for ending the government's control of phone data from millions of Americans and immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get permission before accessing the records.

President Obama on Friday delivered his long-awaited speech outlining electronic surveillance reforms in response to the explosive disclosures of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.

Mr. Obama, a former law professor, structured his remarks as a lengthy discourse on the merits of both sides in the NSA debate. The United States needs to engage in electronic surveillance to keep citizens safe and maintain its role in world security, the president said.

“We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies,” he said.

But Obama acknowledged that Americans – indeed, many people around the world – have become concerned about the extent of NSA activities and that the growth of electronic technology may make it increasingly difficult for the US to guard its citizens’ civil liberties.

“What’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed,” he said.

So how did critics of the NSA react? Some were dismissive: Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Mr. Snowden on many of his revelations, called the speech nothing but a publicity stunt.

But others were cautiously positive.

“Initial verdict: A decent start, better than I expected, but we really need legislation to cement this, & the details will matter a lot,” tweeted Julian Sanchez, a technology and privacy expert at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

Probably the most important of Obama’s reforms dealt with the NSA’s program to collect phone metadata – numbers, length of call, and so forth – in bulk. This haystack of information includes the metadata of the phone calls of millions of American citizens.

Obama promised to end this program as it is currently constituted. For one thing, the NSA will no longer hold this data, he said. He gave his advisers 60 days to come up with a plan for some other party to control US phone metadata.

Congress will probably get to weigh in here, and reaching consensus may be very difficult. Phone companies themselves don’t want the responsibility, and in any case, dealing with numerous telecom carriers might be impractical for the NSA. An outside entity established to do the job could end up being just like the government, only with less money and fewer legal restrictions.

Critics say this proposal might end up just like Obama’s vow to close the Guantánamo prison – high-minded, but impractical and undone.

“He has no clue how to do this,” writes Stewart Baker, former Department of Homeland Security official, on "The Volokh Conspiracy" legal blog.

In another change, Obama said the NSA won’t get to automatically search for information in the metadata haystack whenever it wants. Instead, agency analysts will have to get permission for each search from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

They’ll also have to limit the extent of their surveillance. In the past, the NSA could take a suspicious number and then look out “three hops.” In other words, analysts could look at the metadata of every number that called the suspicious number (one), all the numbers that connected to those first-level numbers (two), and all the numbers that connected to the second-level numbers (three), in an expanding upside-down pyramid of investigation.

That will now be limited to two hops, reducing the chance that the metadata of innocent people will get swept up in a probe.

In another expected move, Obama called on Congress to create a panel of outside advocates to provide an independent voice in “significant cases” before the FISA court. He also directed the NSA to stop spying on friendly foreign leaders, unless directed to do so by a top government official, and called for limited privacy protections for foreign citizens whose communications are vacuumed up by NSA programs.

Finally, Obama said he would order a change in the way the Federal Bureau of Investigation handles national security letters (NSLs). These are secret requests that the FBI sends to companies, particularly communications companies, in search of information related to specific security threats. In the past, they’ve been sealed indefinitely, and the firms were prohibited from talking about them. Now that secrecy will expire at a certain point, unless the government demonstrates a need for continued silence.

“Companies have made clear that they want to be more transparent about the FISA, NSL and law enforcement requests that they received from the government,” reads a White House fact sheet on the president’s reforms.

Obama’s legal training isn’t the only reason he was trying to split the difference between NSA critics and defenders with his reforms. The public itself is of two minds when it comes to Snowden and his disclosures.

For instance, a Gallup poll last June found that 44 percent of respondents thought Snowden had done the right thing in speaking out, while 42 percent thought he had done the wrong thing.

At the same time, a Washington Post/ABC News poll in November found that 68 percent of Americans thought the NSA was intruding on their privacy rights.

“Herein lies Obama’s challenge: How do you sell the public on keeping a phone record program that has triggered deep concerns about privacy? Will limits on the program change Americans’ opinions? Obama certainly hopes that it will,” write Sean Sullivan and Scott Clement on the Post's "Fix" blog.

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