US President Barack Obama outlines changes to NSA surveillance programs on Jan. 17. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama ushered in modest changes to controversial NSA surveillance programs, opting to shift outstanding key decisions to Congress and the attorney general.
Obama sided with senior intelligence officials and hawkish lawmakers by largely keeping in place the so-called “Section 215” and “Section 702” programs that collect telephone and email traffic data.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Defense News in late December that Obama, under his constitutional commander in chief powers, can overhaul any intelligence program he sees fit. But Obama, a former constitutional law professor, made clear Friday he has determined Congress has a major role to play.
Obama bluntly defended the programs as effective tools against al-Qaida and other violent groups, and said a review group he commissioned found no evidence the programs or the information collected under them were misused.
“What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale, not only because I felt that they made us more secure but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” he said in a speech at the Justice Department headquarters here.
The commander in chief has decided it will be up to intelligence community officials and Attorney General Eric Holder to design a new method for collecting and storing electronic metadata, and then for Congress to approve that new approach.
The intelligence community and Holder must report back to Obama by March 28 with the details of their new bulk-metadata program, the date the surveillance programs must be reauthorized by lawmakers.
Shaking up the metadata program would have the biggest impact of the steps Obama described on Friday. The other moves were more modest.
One is a new presidential guidance Obama said is written to “strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities” by ensuring “we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances; our trade and investment relationships, including the concerns of America’s companies; and our commitment to privacy and basic liberties.”
Another is making the NSA programs more transparent and “fortify[ing] the safeguards that protect the privacy of US persons.”
Rather than creating a much-ballyhooed panel to carry that out, Obama merely urged lawmakers to take up the mantle.
“I am calling on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” Obama said.
On the bulk metadata database, Obama gave no indication of whether he believes a government entity or private firm should control and manage it. That means a defense firm well-versed in keeping America’s secrets, could be tapped to handle the job.
One of the primary arguments that senior intelligence officials have used to justify the exposed surveillance programs has been that the collection of data has foiled numerous terrorist plots.
“In recent years, these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the US and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe to include helping prevent the terrorist — the potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11,” NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander said in congressional testimony in June.
That claim has since been refuted, including in a lengthy report produced by the New America Foundation that analyzed the cases of 225 individuals charged with an act of terrorism in the US since 9/11.
“Our review of the government’s claims that NSA ‘bulk’ surveillance of phone and email communications records has had in keeping the United States safe from terrorism shows that these claims are overblown and even misleading,” the report said. “Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group.”
A few hours before Obama spoke, senior administration officials told reporters on a teleconference that the president will not pull the plug on other programs also revealed by former Booz Allen contractor Edward Snowden under which the US allegedly spied on other heads of state.
In heavily couched comments, one of the officials said “US intelligence collection overseas is both necessary for our own national security and also for the security for our partners.”
But the official also said the US would cease monitoring dozens of foreign leaders.
“The president believes strongly that our intelligence programs and our leadership can only be sustained if we have the trust and confidence of leaders and people around the world,” the official said.
Both chambers of Congress had departed for a weeklong recess by the time Obama spoke, but powerful leaders of the Intelligence committees and other influential hawkish members expressed views to Defense News on Thursday that were in line with what the president announced.
“Congress has got to be involved, and I think that’s only through a select committee,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., calling for a special House-Senate panel to review the programs and craft legislative reforms.
Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he wanted Obama to “say the 215 and 702 are very valuable programs, they have contributed to the national security interests of the United States in a very positive way, and while we may need to make them a little more transparent, we need to utilize them more and more.”
That essentially is what Obama did about 24 hours later.
Asked if he wanted the president or Congress to usher in substantial changes to the NSA programs, Chambliss said sternly: “No.”
For Obama, his modest reforms are likely to encounter the most pushback from rank-and-file liberal members and far-right civil liberty hawks.
To that end, in a preview of calls to come from the left and right, Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., wrote Obama this week expressing concern that “reports of surveillance activities have particularly angered our European allies.”
“Safeguarding our national security is the ultimate goal of our intelligence activities,” the trio wrote, “but the recent revelations threaten to undermine transatlantic cooperation in critical areas such as counterterrorism and trade and investment negotiations.”
The prospects of Congress passing an NSA reform bill this year are murky. Both chambers have a crowded legislative docket, a midterm election cycle already underway and the members who want bold reforms possess little power to get a floor vote.
“I fully support the reforms to signals intelligence programs that President Obama outlined today — not only as Secretary of Defense, but as former co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and a former member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement
“They will help restore the confidence of the American people and our allies and partners,” Hagel said. “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.” ■
Zachary Fryer-Biggs contributed to this report.