Obama legacy on line with NSA

President Obama is under pressure from all sides to announce major reforms to the National Security Agency on Friday.

Privacy and civil liberties groups as well as lawmakers on the left have urged for a wholesale termination of much of the government’s snooping. Silicon Valley, home to some of Obama’s biggest supports, is also pressing for change. So are foreign leaders, rankled by the notion that their ally might be spying on them.  

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The calls for reforms put Obama in a tough spot give his administration’s insistence that the NSA’s efforts are critical for national security. 

While Obama is sure to announce some significant policy changes in his Jan. 17 address, it remains unclear just how far he is willing to go.

“He is caught between a rock and a hard place in that the reality is a lot of his base is looking for him to make rather significant changes. At the same time, he’s been on record -- or at least the administration’s been on record  — defending these programs,” said Gary Schmitt, co-director of the American Enterprise Institute’s security studies center.

“So it’s going to be a little bit difficult to square that circle.”

Obama has been reviewing a 300-page White House advisory panel detailing 46 specific recommendations for reforming the NSA and other surveillance agencies. In recent days, the president and top White House aides have also met with lawmakers, members of the intelligence community, privacy advocates and top tech leaders to get their perspectives.

Obama’s legacy is on the line with the recommendations, as is international faith in the U.S. government given the rifts former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks have opened with Germany and other allies.

“I think this is one of these issue that really can dog the president,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who met with White House staff on Thursday. “It’s been a concern certainly not only within the United States but in many regards perhaps more greatly outside the United States.”

Obama phoned German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week and invited her to Washington to thaw their relationship.

Disclosures that the Obama administration has broken into communications centers of companies like Google and Yahoo have also increased public skepticism of those companies.

“If there’s a lack of public trust in U.S. technology companies, that impacts the ability of these companies to sign new customers, keep existing customers. So it’s both a public trust issue and it’s an impact to the bottom line issue,” said Yael Weinman, the vice president for global privacy at the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group that represents Google, Microsoft and other tech firms.

What’s bad for country’s thriving tech sector is bad for the country as a whole, she added.

“In a way, the nation isn’t necessarily secure if it’s not economically secure.”

One of the most controversial aspects of the NSA’s surveillance is the bulk collection of data on domestic phone calls, which the government has said is legal. Privacy advocates want this collection of metadata — which covers the frequency and duration of calls and the number dialed but not the content — shut down entirely, but the White House has said that the program has helped to stop specific terrorist plots.

Leslie Harris, president of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, said that the issue is the single most important for privacy advocates.

“Unless they deal with the big overarching question of bulk collection in both programs, fixing a lot of meaningful but small problems is not going to be enough,” she told The Hill on Friday.

Outside groups have suggested the NSA end its bulk collection while requiring phone companies or a third party to store the data. Sources say Obama is likely to endorse this idea, which would allow the government to look at data with court approval.

Privacy and civil liberties groups say that wouldn’t solve the problem.

“They’ve got to end it and they can’t simply move the data into the phone companies or a third party,” Harris said. “It creates a whole new set of risks.”

Telecommunications companies complain that requiring them to hold on to the metadata would erode the public’s trust in them.

“To the extent the government's purpose is to lessen fear of government misuse, it wouldn’t accomplish the goal of building trust and credibility,” Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, told The Hill. “I can’t see any of them really wanting that role.”

Obama has previously pledged support for changing the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which gives officials the authority to conduct surveillance operations, by allowing it to hear from parties other than just the government.

The president is also under pressure to increase privacy protections for foreigners, impose limits on National Security Letters that force people to hand over information and back off of spying on foreign allies.

Critics of the White House advisory group's report say that reforms to the NSA could weaken the country’s national defense, burdening the intelligence community.

Obama could “make the whole effort much more cumbersome and less efficient and slightly more dangerous,” said Schmitt.

The White House has already rejected the review board’s suggestion to split the positions of NSA leader and U.S. Cyber Command chief.

Requiring private companies to store the bulk collection of metadata would likely require congressional action, as would appointing a new civil liberties advocate on the surveillance court and replacing the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which the White House advisory panel also suggested.

But many of the surveillance activities occur only at the executive branch’s discretion. Obama could easily halt much of it without going through Congress.

“Anything he wants the government not to do he can do on his own,” said Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University. “On the other hand, to the extent he wants structural stuff set up, he may want to have congressional approval.”

Privacy advocates say that whichever reforms Obama lays out, the administration should pledge to be more transparent going forward

“The president’s speech is not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning,” said Kevin Bankston, policy director at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.