Proposed NSA reforms close one loophole while leaving others open

President Barack Obama rolled out a proposal earlier this week that would end the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk phone metadata collection program. The House Intelligence Committee has a proposal of its own purports to achieve the same end.

The proposal pushed by the White House has been received with cautious optimism from civil libertarians, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). They like what they’ve heard, but have explained that the devil is in the details.

Others, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have pointed out that there’s already a proposal in Congress, the USA FREEDOM Act, that would end bulk data collection. Privacy advocates, however, have panned the House Intelligence Committee’s proposal, which is backed by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, discussed and dissected both President Obama and the House Intelligence Committee’s proposal, finding them to be welcome news. But he also pointed out that both measures still leave open the possibility of access to Americans’ personal information.

White House releases brutal panel report on NSA spying

Just two days after a federal judge issued a scathing opinion in which he said the NSA phone metadata program is “likely unconstitutional,” the White House released the report from the five-member panel tasked with reviewing the agency’s data collection methods.

The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology recommending 46 changes, some of which are significant, to the how the NSA gathers intelligence. The suggestions in the 303-page report, Liberty and Security in a Changing World, are non-binding.

“We have emphasized the need to develop principles designed to create strong foundations for the future,” said the panel members a letter to President Barack Obama. “Although we have explored past and current practices, and while that exploration has informed our recommendations, this Report should not be taken as a general review of, or as an attempt to provide a detailed assessment of, those practices.”

“We recognize that our forty-six recommendations, developed over a relatively short period of time, will require careful assessment by a wide range of relevant officials, with close reference to the likely consequences. Our goal has been to establish broad understandings and principles that can provide helpful orientation during the coming months, years, and decades,” the members added.

Initial reports indicated that the panel would suggest that the agency dismantle its vast controversial and heavily criticized phone record database, which stores information on virtually every American. Indeed, the panel even says that “the current storage by the government of bulk meta-data creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty.”

PATRIOT Act author introduces measure to end NSA bulk data collection

James Sensenbrenner

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the author and primary sponsor of the USA PATRIOT Act, announced on Wednesday that he would introduce legislation, the USA FREEDOM Act, to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone and Internet metadata.

“My view of the PATRIOT Act hasn’t changed,” said Sensenbrenner at a Cato Institute conference on NSA surveillance.

“What has changed is what two administrations, Bush 43 and the Obama Administration, have done after I left office as chairman of the [House] Judiciary Committee and did not have my tart oversight pen to send oversight letters that usually were cosigned by Congressman [John] Conyers, then-the ranking member, to the Justice Department, and specifically acting like a crabby, old professors when they were non-responsive in their answers,” he explained.

Sensenbrenner has become a fierce critic of the NSA’s surveillance techniques, referring to them as “excessive and un-American” in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. The NSA has justified the bulk data collection through a controversial provision of the PATRIOT Act. He contends that the NSA is defying congressional intent as the provision, Section 215, allows intelligence agencies to seize records related to an actual investigation into terrorist activity.

Stop the NSA: There is a new push in Congress to end the NSA’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance programs

There may finally be a passable piece of legislation in Congress to end the National Service Agency’s bulk metadata collection program as well as add some much-needed oversight to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

After working with the White House on compromise language, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) rolled out legislation — a new USA FREEDOM Act — today that would protect Americans’ civil liberties from the NSA’s spying programs:

Leahy’s bill would prevent the possibility of that broad collection by requiring agents use specific terms in their searches.

It also requires the government to disclose the number of people caught up in its searches, declare how many of them were Americans and provides more ways for tech companies to report the number of government requests for information they receive, which firms have said is critical to restoring people’s trust in their products.

Finally, Leahy’s bill would also add a panel of special civil liberties advocates to the secretive court overseeing intelligence operations, which currently only hears arguments from the government.

In announcing the bill, Leahy trumpeted support from tech companies including Apple and Google, which have teamed up with other tech giants in the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, as well as privacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Senate Democrat: White House’s NSA reforms don’t go far enough

Ron Wyden

Though he believes the White House’s proposed NSA reforms are a good start, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) says that President Barack Obama could do more to protect Americans’ right to privacy and gain back their trust.

“This starts towards what Ben Franklin had in mind, which is making sure that we can have security without sacrificing our liberties,” Wyden told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. “Now, there’s certainly more to do. For example, I believe the president ought to make the transition right away to ending bulk phone record collection.”

The Obama administration asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to extend the controversial domestic surveillance program for another 90 days while Congress examines legislative options. Wyden said that President Obama should end the bulk data collection program “right now.”

Wyden, who has been among the strongest critics of the NSA bulk data collection program, also said that Congress has to fix the “backdoor search loophole in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” (FISA).

“This allows the government to look at the emails of law-abiding Americans. That needs to be fixed,” Wyden noted. “I believe strongly that we ought to ban all dragnet surveillance on law-abiding Americans, not just phone records, but also medical records, purchases, and others.”

Today in Liberty: Sanctions won’t hurt Russia, Senate Dems to push climate change

“There is a great and tumultuous battle underway for the future, not of the Republican Party, but the future of the entire country. The question is, will we be bold and proclaim our message with passion, or will we be sunshine patriots retreating under adverse fire?”Rand Paul

— Sanctions against Russia won’t work: Steve Chapman says that the push for sanctions against Russia is an exercise in futility, given that sanctions often don’t work. Rather, he explains, Russia could be its own worst enemy. “[O]ur best hope is that he bites off more than he can chew. The invasion of Afghanistan looked like a success at the outset, but it spawned a fierce insurgency that cost thousands of Soviet lives, forced a humiliating retreat and helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The farther Putin pushes and the longer he stays the more likely this occupation will end in tears,” writes Steve Chapman at Reason. “There is a very slim possibility that Western economic sanctions will undo his ambitions in Ukraine. There is a better chance that those ambitions will undo themselves.”

Obama fails to offer fundamental change to metadata programs

After weeks of speculation, President Barack Obama outlined a series of purported reforms to controversial programs used by National Security Agency (NSA) to collect phone metadata of virtually every American.

Given on the anniversary of President Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” speech, President Obama defended his record on civil liberties and the NSA. He also decried the “avalanche of unauthorized disclosures” by Edward Snowden.

“Those of us who hold office in America have a responsibility to our Constitution, and while I was confident in the integrity of those in our intelligence community, it was clear to me in observing our intelligence operations on a regular basis that changes in our technological capabilities were raising new questions about the privacy safeguards currently in place,” said President Obama this morning at the Justice Department. “I believed a fresh examination of our surveillance programs was a necessary next step in our effort to get off the open ended war-footing that we have maintained since 9/11.”

“For these reasons, I indicated in a speech at the National Defense University last May that we needed a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty,” he said. “What I did not know at the time is that within weeks of my speech, an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures would spark controversies at home and abroad that have continued to this day.”

As part of his NSA overhaul, President Obama said that he plans greater executive branch oversight of intelligence activities. He promised more transparency of surveillance programs, pledging to release more FISC orders, and to “fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.”

Senate committee passes measure legalizing NSA bulk data collection

Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), both supporters of the NSA’s privacy invasive surveillance program, sent out a press release yesterday touting the Senate Intelligence Committee’s passage of the FISA Improvements Act and claiming the measure “increases privacy protections and public transparency of the National Security Agency call-records program.”

Senators roll out NSA surveillance reform measure

NSA reform press conference

Congress may be dealing with other legislative priorities at the moment, such as passing a stop-gap funding measure to keep the government open, but the National Security Agency’s broad surveillance apparatus remains a hot topic.

Seeking to roll back the intelligence agency’s ability to spy on Americans, a bipartisan group of senators have proposed a package of measures to reform the PATRIOT Act — the legislation through which the NSA has claimed such broad power — and restore the Fourth Amendment.

The Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), would end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone and Internet metadata and prevent warrantless collection of communications, according to a statement provided by his office. It would also provide for a “constitutional advocate” on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), an idea backed by President Barack Obama.

“The overbroad surveillance activities that have come to light over the last few months have shown how wide the gap between upholding the constitutional liberties of American citizens and protecting national security has become,” said Wyden in the statement.

FISA court found NSA spying program unconstitutional in 2011

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Electronic Fronter Foundation (EFF), the Obama Administration released an October 2011 FISA court opinion determining that the National Security Agency (NSA) violated the Fourth Amendment through one of its surveillance programs:

The Obama administration has given up more of its surveillance secrets, acknowledging that it was ordered to stop scooping up thousands of Internet communications from Americans with no connection to terrorism — a practice it says was an unintended consequence when it gathered bundles of Internet traffic connected to terror suspects.
The NSA declassified three secret court opinions showing how it revealed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that one of its surveillance programs may have collected and stored as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by ordinary Americans annually over three years. The court ruled the NSA actions unconstitutional and ordered the agency to fix the problem, which it did by creating new technology to filter out buckets of data most likely to contain U.S. emails, and then limit the access to that data — and destroy it every two years, instead of every five years, as mandated by the court for other U.S. records gathered by the NSA. The NSA still may retain Americans’ phone records and in some cases copies of their Internet traffic for five years or even longer in some circumstances.

We touched on this story yesterday, but it deserves more attention due to a few different factors.

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