Obama to announce NSA reforms on Friday

The White House is ready to take some action on the recommendations made by the panel that reviewed controversial the NSA bulk data collect program. President Barack Obama will announce reforms in a speech on Friday, though the extent of the changes is not yet clear.

The NSA has lobbying hard to maintain its vast surveillance power and influence, hoping that the White House’s reforms won’t be sweeping. Civil libertarians on Capitol Hill, however, want President Obama to go big on the reforms, even urging him to institute the changes on his own.

But it appears that President Obama, whose dive in the polls began with the NSA domestic surveillance controversy, will lean heavily on Congress to enact his proposed reforms, which could mean a tumultuous road ahead:

Many of the key reforms he’s expected to endorse — including changes to the National Security Agency’s practice of gathering information on telephone calls made to, from or within the U.S. — will require congressional action. Like the public — and seemingly the president himself — lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are divided on what needs fixing and how to do it.

“If he punts the ball 16 blocks, all hell’s liable to break loose on the Hill,” said former NSA director Michael Hayden. “There will be people who will be voting against it because Obama’s reform plan doesn’t go far enough and people voting against it because it doesn’t defend us enough and other people voting against it because it outsources espionage.”
As commander-in-chief, Obama could abandon certain surveillance practices altogether. For instance, he could simply shut down the so-called 215 program to collect telephone data in the U.S. so it can be used to trace potential contacts of terrorism suspects.

But the president has said he’s considering replacing that program with a private-sector-based arrangement that provides the government with similar information on a case-by-case basis. That would require Congress to step in, officials said.

The NSA would still have power to obtain phone records of suspected terrorists if the White House were to abandon the bulk data collection program, which it can and should do. The controversial intelligence agency would simply have to abide the law, getting warrants through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) on a case-by-case basis. That was, after all, congressional intent when the PATRIOT Act was passed in 2001.

Supporters of the NSA bulk data collection program have claimed that it has prevented or foiled terrorist attacks, but the White House’s own review group undermined that false narrative. Some have even claimed that had the program been in existence in 2001, it could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Again, that’s just not true.

Whatever the White House and Congress decide to do this year — which is, by the way, an election year — a recent Washington Post poll found that 66% of Americans are concerned about government surveillance. They’re watching to see what President Obama and Congress do to protect their privacy.

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