In a Friday press conference, President Obama laid out a plan to review the USA PATRIOT Act, secret intelligence courts, and activities of the NSA.
The revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had nothing to do with the review, Obama insisted, saying that as a senator he had supported more transparency and had spoken of the need for greater oversight before. But Snowden's leaks had caused a perception the US was "out there willy-nilly sucking in information on everybody," he said.
"I want to make clear that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people. Our intelligence is focused on finding the information necessary to protect our people, and in many cases protect our allies," he declared.
"It's true, we have significant capabilities. What's also true is that we show a restraint that many other governments around the world refuse to show, and that includes some of America's most vocal critics."
The administration is going to make "appropriate reforms" of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, which is used to collect metadata on US mobile phone calls. The current congressional oversight of the use of Section 215, as well as its safeguards and implementation, may be changed after discussions with the legislature, Obama said.
Also up for review is the conduct of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which signs off on data-collection orders. Oversight of FISC needs a review, he said, and that currently the judges involved only heard the government's side of the story. In appropriate cases, civil liberties groups should be able to mount a defense, he suggested.
Thirdly, the NSA has agreed to appoint a civil liberties officer to oversee that the appropriate safeguards are being followed, and who will release regular transparency reports on the agency and its activities. A website will also be set up to detail what the intelligence agencies can and can't do.
Finally Obama will appoint a panel of "outside experts" to review the totality of US communications technologies, saying "we need new thinking for a new era." The task force will deliver a preliminary report in the next 60 days and a full review by the end of the year.
Obama said he was satisfied that the intelligence agencies were obeying the law at all times, and that civilian oversight is working as it should. But the American people and the rest of the world need to be reassured of that, he said, and this was his reason for ordering the review.
It's not about Snowden
Snowden was not a patriot, Obama claimed, and saying that he should have gone through lawful channels if he had concerns about the intelligence community. Obama said he had signed an Executive Order to specifically protect whistleblowers in the intelligence community, and whistleblowers who act within the law are patriots.
But Snowden had chosen a different route, he said, and had been indicted for three felonies. He has the right, as an American citizen, to come back to the land of his birth and make a case with a lawyer at his side, Obama said.
Obama also denied that Snowden was the cause of the intelligence review, citing his May speech to the National Defense University in which he devoted a few paragraphs to the issue. However, he acknowledged that Snowden's leaks had "triggered a much more rapid and passionate response," than if he'd sat down and worked the review through Congress.
Obama's assurances cut little ice with civil liberties groups.
"We just wouldn't be having this debate without Snowden; it's disingenuous to suggest otherwise," Trevor Timm, digital rights analyst at the EFF, told The Register. "We've been trying to have this debate for five or six years and they just won't budge, and now all of a sudden this avalanche of disclosures and the chance for reform. It's hard to see how it wouldn't have happened without him."
Snowden wouldn't have been protected under the terms of Obama's Executive order, Timm said, since it doesn't apply to contractors. Senator Diane Feinstein, (D-CA) and Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), who oversee the NSA in Congress, are "the biggest supporters of the NSA program," he said, and would never have let this information out.
Overall, Timm said that the proposed reforms sound like a good idea, but the devil is very much in the details. There's no mention of the surveillance programs themselves being curtailed, he warned, or if independent adjudicators would be given the whole story in their investigations or restricted from seeing classified data.
Many of Obama's proposed reforms will have to get congressional approval, and given the parlous partisan logjam in Congress these days, that might mean nothing will get done. But Timm said that the issue of surveillance was a surprisingly non-partisan issue, and that Congress could actually produce some surprises.
"After seeing the Amash-Conyers amendment, the vote was incredibly close and on both sides," he said. "This is the one issue that seems to have struck a chord with people in both parties. I'm as cynical as anybody about Congress, but I hope that that trend will continue with this issue." ®