The scandal surrounding the NSA's data collection and surveillance programs seems never ending. Almost every week there are new revelations as to the extent of the spying, which covers everything from social networks, to phone calls, text messages and location data. President Barack Obama has already sought to assuage the public's fears once by suggesting reforms to the programs, now it's time for round two. At a speech today, the commander in chief announced efforts to limit the use of bulk-collected data and a new process for reviewing data-collection policies. While the NSA won't stop sucking up information anytime soon, added oversight and periodic audits will work to ensure the private data of average citizens is protected not just against governmental abuse, but also external parties that would seek to steal that information. There will also be annual reviews of the priorities and policies used to collect and analyze the data that will involve the heads of multiple departments and agencies. And, to the extent possible, the presidential directive promises to declassify and release the details of those policies to the public. The increased transparency will go a long way toward fulfilling the promise the president made back in July, though many privacy advocates will surely find room for improvement.
The biggest change comes in the form of an end to the bulk data-collection program under section 215 of the Patriot Act. A new system will be put in place, that places the collected metadata in the hands of an unspecified third party and requires a judicial finding before any query of the database, except in the event of a national emergency. There will also be a third-party privacy advocate present to argue before the FISA court at each request for data. The government will also use more stringent standards and "will only pursue phone numbers that are two steps removed from a terrorist organization." That change, from the current standard of three steps, is effective immediately. The government will have to demonstrate a clear national security purpose for each request, and the president guaranteed that this intelligence would not be used for any other purpose. That promise was delivered alongside jabs at foreign critics who have similar surveillance capabilities, but lack America's civil liberties protections.
There is still the potential for more reforms, as the president told the American public "this effort will not be completed overnight ... but I want the American people to know that the work has begun." He went on to argue that there is actually broad agreement on the need for these programs, and for strong safeguards against abuse. "Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties. The challenge is getting the details right, and that's not simple."
The president spent almost as much time discussing what led us to this place as he did talking about plans to reform our spying programs. He reiterated that it is essential that the government have powerful digital surveillance tools in order to disrupt cyber or terror attacks, and to protect its citizens. He also defended the conduct of government agents saying, "Nothing in that initial review and nothing that I've learned since, indicates that our intelligence community aimed to violate law or civil liberties ... Men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently obeyed the laws." That claim, however, is debatable as FISA has reprimanded the NSA on multiple occasions, and even the agency's own inspector general has admitted that individuals have abused the system to spy on both current and former lovers. The president also reiterated that the bulk collection of telephone records, "does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of people making calls." Instead it contains phone numbers alongside the times and lengths of calls.
While many of the reforms announced are welcome changes, it likely won't silence the president's harshest critics. And it's hard to imagine that he will be able to undo to damage to his public image. You'll find the full text of the presidential directive below and we'll update with the full text of his remarks when they become available.