In a speech at the Department of Justice on January 17, President Obama outlined the principles for a broad restructuring of surveillance programs mostly conducted by the National Security Agency that have swept up private data on millions of U.S. citizens. Most of the programs were unknown to the public until a former intelligence contractor provided a trove of classified documents to the media last year.
While acknowledging the president’s proposals were “a positive first step,” TCP was critical of the speech. “The president could have taken important steps to protect people’s privacy against out-of-control government surveillance. Unfortunately, he largely let that opportunity go to waste,” said TCP president Virginia Sloan in a press release.
She noted that the president proposed some important changes, including improved transparency of National Security Letters, backing the creation of a panel of public advocates at the secret intelligence court, and reducing from three to two the number of “hops” the NSA can take in querying the phone call database collected under section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Despite this, Sloan said TCP was disappointed that President Obama chose not to end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone call records, nor to provide any specifics on how he would significantly alter it. “The government’s collection and analysis of phone call metadata as currently constituted not only violates individuals’ privacy rights, but has been shown to be ineffective in keeping us safe,” she said.
The president proposed taking the collection and storage of phone call data out of the hands of the NSA, but defended the existence of the program and failed to offer specifics on where it would be housed. Obama rejected the solution of outsourcing the collection function to a single third-party contractor. Sloan said she hoped Congress would “act decisively to end all bulk collection of our private records.”
TCP has endorsed a bipartisan reform bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), one of the original authors of the Patriot Act. Called the USA Freedom Act, the legislation would end bulk collection and increase transparency and accountability of intelligence agencies.