Obama makes modest reforms to NSA

The Obama administration on Tuesday announced new limits on the National Security Agency’s collection of people’s data.

NSA officials will be ordered to delete private information about Americans that they might have incidentally collected through their work but which provides no real intelligence value to the agency. Agency officials will also be barred from using any collected information except for a six specific purposes to fight terrorists or global crime.

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The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in its report said this would amount to reaffirming existing requirements to delete the information.

Similar information about foreigners that provides no intelligence value must be deleted after five years.

The administration’s new rules will also institutionalize an elevated review of the NSA’s monitoring of targets in dozens of countries in light of “potential risks to national interests and our law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic relationships abroad.”

News of that change comes a week before German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s planned visit to the U.S. Revelations in 2013 that the U.S. had been spying on Merkel’s cellphone conversations caused a historic rift between the two allies, through those tensions seem to have been overcome in recent months.

Finally, the new changes will add a measure of transparency to the government’s use of secretive national security letters to gain information about suspects from companies while preventing them from disclosing what they have handed over. After three years, those letters will now be able to become public.

The reforms were made public in an ODNI report released a year after Obama announced a handful of changes to the NSA's rules. Congress has so far been unable to enact any new law governing the NSA.

“As we continue to face threats from terrorism, proliferation, and cyber-attacks, we must use our intelligence capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security and supports our foreign policy while keeping the public trust and respecting privacy and civil liberties,” White House counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco said in a statement.

The New York Times first reported the news. 

Obama's latest effort falls far short of the dramatic changes demanded by some privacy advocates, however. 

Obama is now reviewing changes made last year to intelligence-gathering activities.

“As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties, and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks,” he said in January's State of the Union address. “Next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.”

Obama one year ago called for the NSA to effectively end its broad powers to collect and search records about Americans’ phone calls, saying that it could “open the door to more intrusive, bulk collection programs in the future.” 

Congress so far has been unable to pass NSA reform, however, and the president has been unwilling to end the program on his own.

Over the next year, the intelligence community will work to update privacy guidelines under executive order 12333 as well continue to work with Congress to end the government’s bulk collection on phone metadata, according to the report. 

The office will also release another report in a year to update the progress.

— This story was updated at 11:40 a.m.