President Obama Surpasses Exceptionally Low Expectations On NSA Reforms, But Reforms Are Still Very Weak

from the you're-no-paul-revere dept

As expected, President Obama this morning gave his speech concerning his plans to "reform" the NSA. Similar to the original task force report, for which the White House first leaked claims that the recommended changes would be "cosmetic"... and then presented something a little more powerful, to try to win people over by beating low expectations. The same is true here. Earlier this week, the White House leaked out reports of cosmetic changes with little in the way of real reforms. Then, this morning, the President announced more significant reforms than expected. He did, in fact, propose a few major changes. You can read the full speech here. Among the things he announced:
  • A judge will have to approve each query for data on the metadata collection from Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.
  • The "three hop" dragnet will be reduced down to two hops. That does, in fact, limit how far the NSA can search by quite a bit. That last hop is quite big.
  • The NSA should no longer hold all of the data, meaning that the telcos will be expected to hold onto it (though, he leaves it up to Congress and the DOJ to figure out how to do this). He calls this a "transition" away from the Section 215 program, but that's hardly clear.
  • National Security Letters (NSLs) will no longer have an unlimited gag order on them. The Attorney General will need to set up guidelines for a time in which gag orders expire, with the possibility of extending them for investigations that are still ongoing.
  • Companies will be given slightly more freedom to reveal data on the NSLs they get (though I don't think he indicated the same thing for Section 702 orders.... which is a big concern).
  • The Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence will review annually FISC rulings to figure out what can be declassified.
  • He promises to "work with Congress" to look at changes to the FISA court
  • He is adding some very limited restrictions on spying on people overseas. It should only be used for actual counterterrorism/crime/military/real national security efforts.
  • A State Department official will be in charge of handling "diplomacy issues" related to these changes on foreign spying.
  • An effort will be started with technologists and privacy experts over how to handle "big data and privacy" in both the public and private sectors.
That is... he is ordering changes that go slightly beyond the expectations his own staffers leaked earlier this week... but stopping way short of actually fixing the problems. And, even with his changes, he leaves many of the details to Congress and the DOJ to sort out for themselves, which is not particularly encouraging, considering how both have acted for decades when it comes to surveillance.

Bulk data collection will still continue in some form, despite the fact that it appears that bulk data collection is rarely useful, compared to targeted surveillance. There will be slightly more oversight, despite the fact that oversight in the past has failed. There will be no effort to stop trying to compromise the technology of American (and foreign) companies leading to serious questions about our tech industry's ability to do business overseas (and at home).

Yes, this is better than it could have been, but only by a tiny degree. The President claims that he is open to further changes, but the fact that he is clearly resisting the major overhauls that are clearly needed does not provide any confidence that he's actually moving towards fixing the overreaching surveillance state. The speech sounded lofty, and talked about American ideals and the necessity of protecting civil liberties, but only moved the ball a very slight way towards getting there. Further, it leaves open plenty of ways for the intelligence community to claw back whatever he's making them "give up" through other means.

Update: Embedded the Presidential Directive that he signed today to put all of what he discussed into effect. You can read it below.

Filed Under: barack obama, nsa, reforms, section 215, surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Pragmatic, 20 Jan 2014 @ 9:34am

    Re: Re:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impeachment#Process

    The House of Representatives must first pass, by a simple majority of those present and voting, articles of impeachment, which constitute the formal allegation or allegations. Upon passage, the defendant has been "impeached". Next, the Senate tries the accused. In the case of the impeachment of a president, the Chief Justice of the United States presides over the proceedings. For the impeachment of any other official, the Constitution is silent on who shall preside, suggesting that this role falls to the Senate's usual presiding officer. This may include the impeachment of the vice president, although legal theories suggest that allowing a defendant to be the judge in his own case would be a blatant conflict of interest. If the Vice President did not preside over an impeachment (of anyone besides the President), the duties would fall to the President pro tempore of the Senate.

    Short version:

    1. Get Congress to agree to impeach him
    2. Get the Senate to try him
    3. Get ready for President Biden
    4. Stop laughing for a moment and say the words with me: President. Biden.

    That's not the reason he's not being impeached; Congress has its filthy fingers deep in the MIC pie. Many of them own businesses that profit from the surveillance state and that'd all come out in the wash. Since they're not obeying the law now, holding impeachment proceedings would simply bring down a spotlight on the conflicts of interest on both sides of the aisle.

    As long as surveillance is considered to be a government thing rather than a private industry + FUD-driven thing, they can continue the charade.

    Basically, if Obama goes down, most of the Intelligence Committee will go down with him and Joe Biden will be president.

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