In January, President Barack Obama made a much-anticipated speech at the Department of Justice outlining proposed reforms of the domestic surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA). The secretive spy agency has taken a public battering ever since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began blowing the whistle on its clandestine collection of basically every American’s telephone records.
"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," the president proclaimed. Unfortunately, Obama’s proposed changes to domestic surveillance programs are not nearly transparent enough, and fail to adequately protect the privacy of Americans.
In January, the federal government’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency charged by Congress with advising the president on the privacy and civil liberties repercussions relating to fighting terrorism, concluded that the NSA’s domestic surveillance “implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value.” How limited? “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”
The oversight board recommended that the surveillance program be terminated. In his speech, the president said that he had consulted with the board. Yet he did not heed its advice.
Instead of ending the unconstitutional domestic telecommunications spying program, Obama offered what he insisted were “a series of concrete and substantial reforms.” These include a new executive order on signals intelligence-that is, data connected with private communications-instructing surveillance agencies that “privacy and civil liberties shall be integral considerations.”
The order further admonishes intelligence bureaucrats to make sure their spying actually provides some benefit greater than the embarrassment officials will surely suffer should they be disclosed. This is the “front page test,” or how officials would feel if what they are doing were reported on the front page of a newspaper. If discovery equals discomfort, then maybe they shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
And for all its language about being more transparent and solicitous of civil liberties, the new executive order includes a secret classified addendum, the content of which we can only guess at, apprehensively.
Obama’s other reform proposals include requiring both the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to review the secret opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) each year, to see which if any can be safely declassified. (Yes, we’ve gotten to the point where even the legal reasoning of a secret court order is considered secret.)