Nearly a year after Edward Snowden’s revelations touched off a scandal over government snooping, President Obama is finally moving to place limits on the NSA’s collection of domestic phone records. It doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a good, if belated, start.
At the outset, Mr. Obama sought to reassure Americans that his own good intentions and background as a constitutional lawyer were reason enough to feel secure. He would never allow unwarranted privacy violations on his watch, no way.
Nice try, but the public was not won over by his soothing words. The extent of the National Security Agency’s vast intake of raw data, with its ominous echoes of Big Brother, proved unnerving, proof to many that the government’s widespread invasion of privacy had become the new normal after 9/11.
It gradually, and all too slowly, dawned on both Mr. Obama and the intelligence community’s friendly overseers in Congress that more would was required to quiet the uproar.
The result, as outlined by Mr. Obama this week — the details will be disclosed on Friday — is a significant change that would leave the bulk storage of millions of Americans’ phone records in the hands of phone companies, rather than the NSA itself.
Furthermore, the phone companies would not be required to retain the data any longer than they normally would, about 18 months.
The government currently keeps the information for five years.
A judge’s order would be required before the NSA could obtain records of callers who are linked to a suspect. Currently, there is no statutory provision mandating this level of judicial oversight, although administration officials say the president started requiring court approval in January.
In this regard, the president’s blueprint beats the bipartisan plan drafted by the chairman and ranking leader of the House Intelligence Committee, Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Md., which would not require prior judicial review.
This is a significant step forward. But it fails to deal with the most important issue — the absence of any sort of adversarial process before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
Couple that with unknown standards over what level of information will be required to justify government seizure of phone records, and the result is that the public is left in the dark about the potential for privacy intrusions because FISA meets in secret.
Some say the president is stalling by sending his proposal to Congress for approval. Given Congress’ sad record of dysfunction, it might quickly become a divisive topic and, ultimately, disappear into the great legislative thicket on Capitol Hill.
Acting by presidential fiat would be quicker, but the public would be left unprotected if a later chief executive overturned this president’s decision. A statutory remedy is far better, even at the cost of prolonged hearings. Ideally, this process will ultimately put on the books a level of privacy protection for Americans that does not exist at this time.
It also gives the public a chance to weigh in. Although some members of Congress became alarmed when the extent of NSA surveillance became known, others defended the NSA’s activities.
Lawmakers need to hear from voters who want their representatives in Congress to protect their privacy as much as possible without endangering their security.