A committee tasked by the White House with reviewing U.S. electronic surveillance has come up with 46 proposed changes to National Security Agency spying practices. Here are arguments for and against five recommendations that President Obama may take up in a speech announcing policy changes Friday:
Limit Access To Bulk Telephone Data
Enact new laws to end the NSA’s systematic collection of Americans’ phone metadata — which include details on telephone calls similar to a phone bill but not the content of conversations — and require the agency to get a federal court order to get that information either from the telephone company or from a newly designated “private third party.”
Pros: Would prevent the NSA from using the bulk data to go on data-mining “fishing expeditions” to discover possibly spurious connections between individuals and groups based on the details of their phone calls. As some critics have pointed out, the search through mounds of metadata can be a bit like the game “six degrees of separation”: A knows B, who knows C. The connection could be significant, or maybe not.
Cons: Could slow down the government’s access to such data and hamper investigations. Also, an NSA analysis reportedly found “significant costs to phone companies to retain the data.”
Privacy Safeguards For Foreign Leaders
Require the president and senior national security officials to sign off on any NSA eavesdropping on foreign leaders’ phone calls and emails.
Pros: Could help smooth the ruffled feathers of foreign leaders who’ve been the target of such snooping, as revealed by the Snowden leaks, most famously German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose cellphone was monitored by the NSA.
Cons: As a former senior intelligence official tells The Washington Post, the entire reason for U.S. intelligence agencies is to “collect foreign intelligence without regard to the civil liberties of the targets,” he says. “It’s a dangerous road to go down to start worrying about the civil liberties and constitutional rights of people like the president of Pakistan or the senior military commander in Libya.”
Judicial Approval Of Seizure Of Financial And Phone Records
Require a “judicial finding” for all National Security Letters, or NSLs (administrative subpoenas), before financial and phone records can be seized by the FBI.
Pros: Greater protection against broad sweeps of such records by law enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union says “The FBI issues up to 50,000 of these a year in terrorism investigations, even for the records of people who are suspected of no wrongdoing.”
Cons: The extra step involved in obtaining vital information could slow down “hot pursuit” investigations, officials say, and back in 2008, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that incidents of misuse were “infrequent and unintentional,” according to the Heritage Foundation.
Appoint Advocate To Safeguard Civil Liberties
Create a “public interest advocate” to appear before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to represent civil liberties concerns.
Pros: Would keep intelligence services focused on preventing abuses of civil liberties, as well as the kinds of alleged overreach that has sparked the current debate over government’s surveillance activities.
Cons: Judge John Bates, the former head of the FISA Court, says appointing such an advocate is “unnecessary and could prove counterproductive in the vast majority of FISA matters.” Carrie Cordero, the director of national security studies and an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, says she’s “concerned about the practical impact, over time, of an adversarial process, prior to collection, becoming a bureaucratic impediment to conducting needed foreign intelligence activities.”
Halt NSA Efforts To Crack Encryption
Halt NSA efforts to undermine secure encryption standards used by tech companies and businesses.
Pros: Would give Americans a reasonable expectation of privacy in their email and social media activities.
Cons: Being able to read email sent and received by the “bad guys” might prove key to heading off potential terrorist plots, intelligence officials contend. “If [the NSA] cannot decipher the messages of terrorists, foreign spies and other adversaries, the United States will be at serious risk,” agency officials quoted by ProPublica say.