News / USA

US Intelligence Reforms Debated Ahead of Obama Speech

Michael Bowman
U.S. intelligence reforms to be unveiled by President Barack Obama will be informed, at least in part, by a panel of legal scholars and spy experts that submitted recommendations to the White House for overhauling the National Security Agency. 

Even before the president’s address, some proposals are already generating resistance on Capitol Hill.
 
Friday, Obama is expected to deliver his most comprehensive response to U.S. spying disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
 
Obama will seek to address mounting privacy concerns, and is likely to ask Congress to help decide thorny issues pitting civil liberties against national security.  Those issues were aired Tuesday, when members of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence discussed their recommendations with a Senate panel.  
 
Here are a few of the recommendations made by an outside review panel for wide-ranging changes to the U.S. government's surveillance programs:

1.    The government now stores bulk telephony metadata, understood as information that includes the telephone numbers that both originate and receive calls, time of call and date of call. We recommend that Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes.

2.    Restrictions on the ability of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to compel third parties (such as telephone service providers) to disclose private information to the government.

3.    Legislation should be enacted requiring information about surveillance programs to be made available to the Congress and to the American people to the greatest extent possible.

4.    Significant steps should be taken to protect the privacy of non-US persons.

5.    The president should create a new process, requiring highest-level approval of all sensitive intelligence requirements and the methods that the Intelligence Community will use to meet them.

6.    We believe that the director should be a Senate-confirmed position, with civilians eligible to hold that position; the president should give serious consideration to making the next director of NSA a civilian.

7.    We recommend that Congress should create the position of Public Interest Advocate to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties before the FISC.
Legal scholar Cass Sunstein said the review group's proposals will not undermine national security.

“Much of our focus has been on maintaining the ability of the intelligence community to do what it needs to do to.  Not one of the 46 recommendations in our report would, in our view, compromise or jeopardize that ability in any way," said Sunstein.

Last month, the review group issued a 300-page report urging private storage of bulk data collected by the NSA and enhanced privacy protections for U.S. and non-U.S. citizens.   It also recommended privacy advocates play a role in secret courts that authorize wiretaps, and improved oversight of NSA programs, particularly surveillance operations of foreign leaders.
 
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy says reforms are needed.

“We are really having a debate about Americans’ fundamental relationship with their own government, " he said. "The government exists for Americans, not the other way around."

​But Republican Senator Chuck Grassley cautioned that intelligence reforms must not return federal agencies to a pre-September 11, 2001 mentality.

“Some of the recommendations in the report appear to make it more difficult to investigate a terrorist than a common criminal," he said. "And some appear to rebuild the wall between our law enforcement and and national security communities that existed before September 11, 2001."

Former U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte described the challenge facing Obama

“How do you make improvements in an issue such as privacy and the treatment of our friends and allies abroad without prejudicing somehow the effectiveness of our intelligence collection efforts?  It is a balance, and it is a balance that is being looked at now as it has been in the past and I am sure it will be again in the future," he said.

In its report, the presidential review panel warned that striking a balance between liberty and security may not be possible or even desirable in all cases, saying, “some safeguards are not subject to balancing at all.”

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