Changes by President Barack Obama to how information collected by the National Security Agency is handled won’t quell concerns about violations of civil liberties, say local intelligence experts who differ on the effect the changes may have on national security.
The changes, laid out during a speech at the Department of Justice, came in the wake of uproar about once-secret NSA data collection programs made public by leaks from former NSA contractor Eric Snowden. And they come at a time when the ability to collect data is developing far more rapidly then the ability to fully understand the legal and moral ramifications of what to do with that information.
One expert contacted by the Tribune called the proposals “a good first step” while another termed it “window dressing.” A retired Army intelligence officer expressed concern that some of the changes could weaken national security.
“Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of the current three,” said Obama, addressing concerns over the bulk collection of telephone records. “And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.”
Created in 1978, the seven-judge Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court, 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,” said Obama.
Obama also announced several others steps in his speech.
♦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 the president and to Congress on these efforts.
♦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 FISA court.
♦Providing 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 by asking the Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence 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.
♦Increasing transparency on the FBI’s use of “national security letters, which can require companies to provide specific and limited information to the government without disclosing the orders to the subject of the investigation” by directing the Attorney General to amend how use of national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, “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,” the President said.
“I think the speech is a good first step in beginning to look at some of these problems, but it omits too much,” said Mike Pheneger of Tampa. Obama’s proposed reforms on how the type of information gathered by the NSA, called signals intelligence, is gathered, stored and accessed “places too many of those reforms and actions totally in the executive branch. It’s like the fox and chicken coop problem, Most of them put the fox in charge of the hen house.”
Pheneger has a unique view on these issues.
In 1987, he became the first director of intelligence for U.S. Special Operations Command and later became commander of the former U.S. Army Intelligence School at Ft. Devens, part of the NSA cryptologic training system for signals intelligence. And now the retired colonel is president of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida.
Obama’s changes, enacted and proposed, “provide somewhat more transparency, and they provide hope that some of these really extraordinary capabilities will be used with greater oversight, but I don’t think they in and of themselves solve all the problems associated with excessive government surveillence,” said Pheneger,
First and foremost, Pheneger argues that the FISA court should be like other courts, where opponents can argue against granting government requests for information.
“We need to make FISA adversarial,” said Pheneger. “It is the only court in the country that is not.”
From a national security standpoint, signals intelligence “is very important,” said Pheneger, “helping to determine an enemy’s capabilities.”
He said Obama’s speech seems to maintain the ability to collect that information when needed.
“The big issue is whether the additional oversight will disrupt the timing” for acquiring that information, said Pheneger. “He clearly made an exception for real emergencies which means skip steps if you think that the stakes are high.”
Bob Sawallesh, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former intelligence officer now living in Valrico, has an opposite take on increasing input into FISA court decisions.
“We must make sure that the President’s “Independent Voice” program to monitor our surveillance is not made of those who are against surveillance programs which protect our nation,” said Sawellesh, a Vietnam War veteran. “Russia, China, other nations and terrorist groups no doubt listened very closely to the President’s speech and they no doubt will take advantage of any weakness as the surveillance reforms evolve.”
The capabilities of the NSA to vacuum up data “opens up huge advantage for us, when we need it, to try to find out what bad guys are doing,” said Walter Andrusyszyn, a former State Department and National Security Council official who now oversees an intelligence education program at the University of South Florida.
But the approach outlined in the President’s speech are inadequate, said Andrusyszyn.
“My impression is that this cookie-cutter approach on the quantity of collection and transparency and adding another bureaucratic layer on oversight will not solve the problems,” he said. “They are not substantive changes. They are window dressing.”
The NSA, he said, does not need to collect anywhere near the amount of data it does, adding that it is up to the White House to set much more stringent, tightly targeted limits.
“The limitation on the broad, fishing net approach we now have will not limit the ability to collection national security intelligence data,” said Andrusyszyn.