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President Obama Announces NSA Reforms

News & Politics

President Obama announced today, in a speech at the Department of Justice, a set of reforms that will address the widely reported NSA spying program disclosed by Edward Snowden in June 2013. The reforms are focused on the bulk collection of phone records, or metadata, done by the NSA. Just as the speech was about to begin, the White House release an official policy directive that proposes the following changes.

The NSA will no longer be able to query the metadata without the permission of the FISA court.

Before today, all the NSA intelligence analysts had to do before they could query the database of metadata was to decide internally that the given phone number was subject to reasonable suspicion. There was no oversight of these individual decisions outside of the agency, which critics have said caused an unjust abuse of power.

Now, before any individual query is authorized, it must get approval from the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) Court in regards to whether there is a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” of a threat.

If permission is granted, the NSA will no longer be able to use that permission to search as widely.

Previously, when an intelligence analyst was querying the database, he could look at all phone numbers within three degrees of separation of the target number. In other words, they could, “look at any phone number that is connected to the first [number], any number that is connected to that number, and any number that is connected to that number.” It was informally known as “three hops”. Effective immediately, they will only be able to make “two hops”.

President Obama asked Congress to set up a panel of public advocates to represent consumers before the FISA court.

Up until now, the FISA Court, which is made up of judges appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts, was a one-sided court. Due to the national security-related affairs of the court, the government faced no opposing council. The lack of opposing council has caused the FISA Court to approve every single one of the 1,856 applications presented to them in 2012. They never said no.

The public advocates will be tasked with representing Americans inside the court. However, there is one caveat. The Washington Post is reporting that, according to a senior administration official, they will only be tasked to represent Americans when the FISA Court faces “novel issues of law.” This means that the advocates will likely only be opposing council in the court when the court faces a matter it has not faced before. Other details appear to be murky, but surely they will filter out over the coming months.

The phone records database will possibly be handed over to a third party.

President Obama has proposed that this change should not happen immediately, but rather that his advisors should be tasked with figuring out a way to make this transition in the next 60 days. There are a couple of different possibilities for the recipients of the database. It could be a newly-created government facility; another option could be that the phone companies will be required to hold onto the data for a longer period of time. Further details will likely emerge in the future.

We will no longer spy on “dozens” of foreign leaders.

This reform comes to quell fears of foreign allies whose phones the NSA has tapped. The most notable of the leaders was Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who was furious when it was disclosed that the NSA had surveilled her private phone. Another prominent leader who was upset about the NSA’s spying was Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who canceled an official visit to the US over the spying claims.

These relatively modest reforms won’t dispel the critics’ concerns over the government’s spying powers. They only address the phone records program; there is nothing about PRISM, which is the NSA’s program that collects data on internet users like email correspondence or social network use. It doesn’t address the NSA’s alleged backdoor encryption schemes. It only addresses the phone records program, which is seen by some critics as one of the less invasive aspects of the NSA.

If there is one thing that is certain about today’s reforms, it is that none of this would have been possible without the disclosures made by Edward Snowden. He started this conversation and these reforms vindicate his actions. He was right that these programs should have been reformed. Obama, by announcing and supporting these reforms, is absolutely assigning Edward Snowden as a whistleblower. There is no way around it. The sad thing is, is that we would still lock him up for years if he would return to the United States. As Daniel Ellsburg, the pentagon papers leaker, said, “He is a hero of mine”.

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