The Obama administration has announced changes to the surveillance operations conducted by the United States intelligence community, but critics are already using words like “weak” to describe the so-called reform.
Adjustments to how US intel agencies collect and hold bulk data on Americans and surveillance records concerning foreigners are outlined in a report published on Tuesday this week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The report—released near the one-year anniversary of an address in which US President Barack Obama promised surveillance reform in the wake of an international eavesdropping scandal—is described by the ODNI as being the result of a “comprehensive effort to examine and enhance the privacy and civil liberty protections we embed in our signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection activities.”
Private information pertaining to Americans that is “incidentally” swept up by electronic surveillance programs intended to target foreigners must now be purged if they contain no useful intelligence, according to changes explained in the report, and records regarding foreigners that appear useless must be discarded after five years. Additionally, the report says that details about National Security Letters served to companies typically with a gag order can now be publically disclosed after three years, and an oversight board is being established to monitor how American agencies eavesdrop on foreign leaders.
The report “highlights substantial progress and reflects an ongoing commitment to greater transparency,” the White House said.
As we continue to face threats from terrorism, proliferation and cyber-attacks, we must use our intelligence capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security and supports our foreign policy while keeping the public trust and respecting privacy and civil liberties,” Lisa Monaco, a homeland security advisor to President Obama, said in a separate statement.
Nearly two years after surveillance revelations came to light following former government contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosure of top-secret documents to the media, critics say the changes are too few and too late.
“Obama’s latest NSA ‘Reform’ is predictably weak,” Gizmodo declared in a Tuesday morning headline. “Proposed changes to US data collection fall short of NSA reformers’ goals,” boasted an article published by the Guardian—the same paper that published the first of Snowden’s surveillance scoops in June 2013, which helped prompt calls for changes.
Even the report, the Guardian article’s authors pointed out, acknowledges the inability of American lawmakers to curb one of the more controversial surveillance programs exposed by Snowden. Nearly two years later, the Obama administration has failed to bring significant changes to Section 215 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, leaving largely untouched a provision that permits the National Security Agency to compel American telecoms to divulge customer metadata in bulk.
The administration was disappointed that the 113th Congress ended without enacting this legislation,” the ODNI report reads. “The Intelligence Community encourages Congress to quickly take up and pass legislation that would allow the government to end bulk collection of telephony metadata records under Section 215, while ensuring that the government has access to the information it needs to meet its national security requirements.”
One of the groups that has called for curbing the program—the White House’s own Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board — said last month that President Obama could end the dragnet phone surveillance “at any time,” but has failed to do so, instead asking Congress to come up with a compromise.