Obama's NSA Restrictions Applauded, But May Hinder Search For Terrorists Abroad

By Dan Parsons

The restrictions President Barack Obama announced Jan. 17 on the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records and other data may stifle the U.S. government’s ability to root out terrorism abroad, a national security analyst said.

Meanwhile members of Congress and civil-liberties advocates extolled Obama for increasing oversight of signals intelligence activities at home and abroad.

After months of unauthorized revelations about the NSA and its vacuuming of phone calls, emails and text message within the United States and overseas, Obama sought to reassure the American public that the programs were necessary for national security and have not and would not be abused.

Fred Fleitz, senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy, praised Obama for reassuring citizens of the United States that the NSA is not listening in on their conversations, but balked when the president called for restrictions on gathering metadata overseas.

“It sounds good at the beginning, that we need robust intelligence systems and we don’t have to apologize to partners overseas,” Fleitz said of Obama’s speech at the Justice Department Jan. 17.

“But then he lays down conditions that will … place restrictions on intelligence collection against foreigners. It’s going to add to the already risk averse culture of the intelligence community. He’s basically saying he doesn’t trust the intelligence community to make these decisions about what data is gathered and when.”

Obama announced protections for foreign citizens whose data is collected by the NSA and the appointment of a permanent official to oversee civil liberty issues before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. A similar permanent position will be created on the president’s national security advisory staff within the White House, he said.

Collection of data from non-U.S. citizens came under fire when it was revealed that NSA surveillance programs had targeted foreign heads of state.

Obama said the “United States has unique responsibilities when it comes to intelligence collection abroad.” But “citizens of other countries must have confidence that the U.S. has concern for their privacy, too.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a statement following the speech supporting the president’s reforms, saying that they would help restore confidence in citizens and foreign partners that the United States remains committed to the preservation of civil liberties.

“These programs must always balance the need to defend our national security with the responsibility to preserve America's individual liberties, and the president's decisions and recommendations will do that,” Hagel said. “They will help restore the confidence of the American people and our allies and partners. They will preserve important capabilities that keep us safe. And they will help the men and women of America's military  continue to accomplish their missions all over the world.”

It was leaked in June that the NSA intercepts millions of communications and financial transactions globally in a enormous program to sniff out terrorists before they can strike. The program began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The NSA collects and stores metadata — phone numbers, times and call length — but not content. Analysts are authorized to query the database only when a threat is detected.

Aside from restrictions on the collection of information from foreign citizens and governments, Obama outlined a plan to transition the storage of data to a third party so the NSA no longer has direct access to the database but can search it if a threat is identified. The transition plan will be finalized by March 28, when the intelligence-gathering program is due for reauthorization.
Obama promised annual review of targets of NSA surveillance and greater transparency of the program and heretofore-classified FISA court rulings.

The speech came on the same day that the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper published the latest revelation from former government contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA’s “Dishfire” program collected nearly 200 million text messages a day in 2011 and analyzed their contents. NSA Chief Gen. Keith Alexander had previously said the agency did not collect text messages.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll and a December Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans think the NSA’s collection of phone records and other communications infringe on their right to privacy. Still, 60 percent said Snowden’s leak of classified information threatened national security.

The government will immediately begin analyzing phone calls that are a maximum of two calls removed from an identified terror organization, Obama said. The database of communications data will also only be searchable if authorized by a judicial finding or in a “true emergency,” he said.

Fleitz said finding a bipartisan legislative approach to limiting the NSA’s actions was positive, but was concerned that such strenuous judicial oversight could hamstring what has been an effective antiterrorism tool.

“As you peel away the layers of this onion, I’m very concerned,” he said. “Telephone companies don’t want to hold this data. This creates new security concerns  because you have more people in the loop who don’t know anything about foreign policy. He did say we need the programs because they work and they save lives. That wasn’t really a change. The concern is to reassure the American people, not to stifle these programs so that they are too restrictive to use.”

Danielle Brian, Executive Director, Project On Government Oversight, praised the announced reforms, but called for further restrictions on NSA spying on Americans and greater transparency than Obama announced.

“It is significant that he noted the need to declassify Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions but there is still need for more reforms to end secret laws,” Brian said in a prepared statement. “Congressional oversight is vital—the intelligence agencies cannot police themselves.”

Brian also called for the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act that would end bulk collection of metadata and provide greater protection for whistleblowers like Snowden, among other restrictions on secret spying and classified laws.

The Internet has created a world in which a bomb can be built in a basement from downloaded directions and a hacker could theoretically disable the U.S. electric grid from across the Pacific Ocean, Obama warned.

In that kind of world, monitoring electronic transactions and communications is a national security necessity, but the current debate over the balance of security and privacy will likely be ongoing, he added.

“Everyone who has looked at these problems … recognizes that we have real enemies and threats and intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them,” Obama said.

Still, he acknowledged that “those responsible for our national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse. … Given the power of the state, it is not enough to say ‘trust us’ we will not [abuse] the data we collect.”

Topics: C4ISR, Intelligence

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