Those NSA 'reforms' in full: El Reg translates US Prez Obama's pledges

Filleting fact from fiction


Let's get to the meat of the reforms

First, I have approved a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities both at home and abroad. This guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities. It will ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances; our trade and investment relationships, including the concerns of American companies; and our commitment to privacy and basic liberties. And we will review decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis so that our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior national security team.

Increased oversight is certainly needed, although the details of the presidential directive aren't yet known. Certainly Obama seems to be saying that the new regimen will fix some of the problems being detailed, and companies like Cisco, whose profits have been hit by the perception that their products are easily accessible by NSA agents, will breathe easier.

We will reform programs and procedures in place to provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities, and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Since we began this review, including information being released today, we have declassified over 40 opinions and orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides judicial review of some of our most sensitive intelligence activities – including the Section 702 program targeting foreign individuals overseas, and the Section 215 telephone metadata program.

The declassification of such documents is very welcome news. What we've seen so far has been partially reassuring and, in parts, worrying. The secret NSA oversight court has complained that judges are being lied to, and that the US G-men aren't answering questions properly – and that's just in the opinions released.

Opening up secret courts

Going forward, I'm directing the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Attorney General, to annually review for the purposes of declassification any future opinions of the court with broad privacy implications, and to report to me and to Congress on these efforts. To ensure that the court hears a broader range of privacy perspectives, I am also calling on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Given Clapper's record as Director of National Intelligence, the news he'll be overseeing the distribution of declassified documents doesn't exactly inspire confidence, but the inclusion of the Attorney General is a welcome step.

Creating a panel of advocates for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is a very good move, and one that privacy groups have been calling for. Such advocates still have to be picked however, and it's going to be interesting to see who gets the final say on who is chosen. But the phrase "significant cases" does raise the question as to how often these advocates will actually be called.

We will provide additional protections for activities conducted under Section 702, which allows the government to intercept the communications of foreign targets overseas who have information that's important for our national security. Specifically, I am asking the Attorney General and DNI to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government's ability to retain, search, and use in criminal cases communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702.

Reform of Section 702, or even a clarification as to how far it can be used, is certainly welcome. But when you reread the statement, you see there's no solid commitment to reform, and it could be that nothing meaningful will change, particularly with the DNI in the driving seat.

I have directed the Attorney General to amend how we use national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy. We will also enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government.

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and others will be pleased to hear this. Ever since Google started doing transparency reports (and others in the industry followed them), there has been a lot of interest from consumers and businesses in the results.

Companies looking to do business internationally have faced a very tricky situation ever since Snowden started singing. Cloud vendors in the US complain that they are treated like pariahs when it comes to selling their services overseas. The reform will go some way to easing those concerns.

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