President’s goal for NSA reform — no more Edward Snowdens

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The Obama administration plans to overhaul the nation’s security clearance system to prevent future intelligence leaks like the one by former defense contractor Edward Snowden.

The changes, part of a package of reforms President Obama is expected to announce Friday during a speech at the Justice Department, will include more stringent — and more frequent  — vetting of security clearances, according to sources familiar with the administration’s plans. 

The president is embracing some of the proposals offered by an advisory panel he appointed.

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The panel recommended security clearances become more highly differentiated and that a new clearance level be created to limit the sensitive material that information technology workers can access.

Those with security clearances may also be subject to “continuous monitoring,” with things like changes in credit ratings, arrests, or suspicious reports from fellow employees becoming incorporated regularly into a review of employees’ clearances.

While working on IT issues as a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor at an NSA facility in Hawaii, Snowden gathered more than 1 million documents detailing the government’s top-secret security programs.

He has since leaked information about the government’s mass collection of telephone and email records, its surveillance of foreign electronic communication, and its monitoring of foreign leaders’ phones and email.

The leaks are among the most significant in U.S. history and have created headaches for the administration both at home and overseas.

They also led to bipartisan calls from Capitol Hill to reform the clearance process, with lawmakers complaining about inconsistent standards during security investigations.

“Different responsibilities, different standards, different metrics, different everything,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said at a hearing investigating the clearance process last summer. “So this issue comes up with Snowden, and we shouldn’t be surprised at all.”

The advisory panel appointed by Obama offered 46 recommendations to the White House.

The majority will be approved by Obama in his Friday speech, which is expected to focus primarily on the president’s proposals to increase transparency and privacy protections, though sources said the situation remains fluid and that some decisions have yet to be finalized.

The Associated Press reported last week that Obama would increase scrutiny on U.S. surveillance of foreign leaders. The White House may also appoint privacy and civil liberties policy officials at senior levels within the administration, and may take steps to reaffirm that the surveillance programs do not steal trade secrets.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that Obama is “near completion” and “finishing his work” on the review.

“We’re not quite concluded yet in that process, but coming close,” Carney said.

The administration may take additional actions to guard against future Snowdens.

It plans to continue to study another recommendation from the advisory panel to consolidate the background review process so that checks could only be performed by the government or a designated nonprofit entity, according to sources familiar with its deliberations. And the administration will examine implementing new restrictions on how and when cleared personnel can access specific information.

Separately, the president is expected to reject recommendations from the advisory panel of a substantial overhaul to the NSA.

Obama is expected not to adopt the panel’s suggestion that the NSA’s cyberdefense group — the Information Assurance Directorate — be moved to the Pentagon. Nor will Obama order the reassignment of missions other than foreign intelligence collection away from the agency, a source familiar with the current state of the review said. 

Those expectations suggest that Obama is not readying an extreme overhaul of the spy agency’s structure. They were foreshadowed in the administration’s early announcement that it would not follow the review board’s recommendation to split the NSA from the U.S. Cyber Command, thereby preventing a civilian leader of the organization. 

In December, the White House announced that “one, dual-hatted position is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies’ missions.”

Obama and top White House aides have been meeting with lawmakers, members of the intelligence community, privacy advocates and tech company executives ahead of the expected announcement.

Much of the focus has centered on what, if anything, the president will recommend doing about the controversial telephone metadata and electronic surveillance programs. 

Many of the recommendations from the White House review group, like both the measures to shift the bulk data collection and install a civil liberties advocate on the secretive court that oversees national security decisions, would require legislation.

On Monday, Carney said it was “a fair assumption to make based on the recommendations that were released publicly by the review group, that some of these reforms and changes would require congressional action,” noting he was not confirming any of the president’s plans.

Lawmakers told The Hill last week that the controversial bulk metadata collection program was one of the top items on the agenda in their 90-minute meeting with Obama. Advocates of reform, including Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said that changes to the program were gaining momentum.

Metadata information includes the phone number dialed as well as the frequency and duration of calls but not the content itself.

Leahy, along with Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), has introduced the USA Freedom Act, which would end the metadata collection program. The legislation has gained broad support from both parties but is being opposed by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others who have defended the program. 

In addition to Obama’s expected announcement, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is also gearing up to release a report in late January or early February outlining recommendations for reforming the country’s surveillance infrastructure.