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Obama Spying Changes Draw Cautious Praise

  • Kent Klein

President Barack Obama's proposals to reform U.S. surveillance have earned partial backing from intelligence experts and some critics. Many are waiting to see, however, whether Friday's speech results in action.

"I have approved a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities, at home and abroad," said the president.

After months of controversy, Obama has proposed limits on some activities by the National Security Agency.

Among the suggestions from a presidential review board are having the NSA give up control of phone records, ending spying on the leaders of U.S. allies, and giving some privacy protections to foreign citizens under surveillance.

Bruce Riedel, who leads the Brookings Institution's Intelligence Project, said the president struck a blow for transparency. "But I don't think we've ever had a document like this, that lays out the protocols, principles for American signals intelligence collection. And I think that's good in two respects. It's good for the American public, the global public, to be able to read it and see what those principles are. And it's good for the National Security Agency, because the National Security Agency can say, 'See, what we did was legal,'" he said.

Former acting CIA director John McLaughlin is taking a wait-and-see approach. "I suspect what he said today will not lead to great cheers among those who want strong limitations placed on the NSA, nor will it lead to great cheers among those who think very little or nothing should be done. So he has charted a middle ground here," he said.

At Washington's American University, national security law expert Stephen Vladeck said the plan's success depends on its implementation. "Are these reforms actually going to be carried into force? How meaningful are they going to be? Are the intelligence communities going to find ways around these reforms through other programs, through other technologies?"

One of the NSA's sharpest critics, former agency analyst Bill Binney, gave Obama credit for seeking advice on the issue from the intelligence community. "He seemed to be open to even more suggestions than what he laid out, which is a positive, because I think he needs to go quite a bit further than he has," he said.

Binney said the president needs to scrap bulk data collection entirely and use a more tightly focused approach.

Obama's attention to the privacy rights of foreigners was praised by Brookings Institution senior fellow Benjamin Wittes, who said, "The president, for the first time - and it's a very important statement at a kind of spiritual level - that we acknowledge that non-U.S. persons have privacy rights in the context of our overseas collection."

That, and the order to stop spying on friendly leaders, should improve U.S. foreign relations, according to Stephen Vladeck at the American University School of Law.

"So no longer collecting foreign intelligence just because we can, but actually collecting foreign intelligence when we have a cognizable identifiable individualized need for specific information on specific individuals and you know that could be a very dramatic step, certainly a very positive one from the perspective of diplomatic relations with our friends and partners overseas," said Vladeck.

Several experts say that if the president's speech accomplishes nothing else, it will help build morale at the beleaguered NSA.
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