Obama proposes legislative tweaks to bulk surveillance

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President Obama announced a handful of prospective changes to intelligence community surveillance efforts including additional oversight, while continuing to argue for their criticality to preventing terrorist attacks.

In an Aug. 9 press conference, Obama said he will ask for legislative changes to Section 215 of the Patriot Act (codified at 50 USC § 1861), the legal authority the intelligence community and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have cited as justification for the bulk storing of domestic and international telephone metadata records by the National Security Agency.

Light on specifics, the president said reforms should include "steps to put in place greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints on the use of this authority." The White House opposed an ultimately defeated July House lawmaker effort that would have greatly narrowed Section 215 record collection by requiring collected records to have a connection with specific, targeted individuals. Since then, Section 215 supporter Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has floated the possibility of cutting NSA retention of telephone metadata down to 2 or 3 years from the current period of 5 years.

Bulk telephone record collection "is an important tool in our effort to disrupt terrorist plots," Obama said during the press conference.

Other legislative changes Obama said he will support--also summarized in a White House statement--include the introduction of an adversarial system into the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Court. A common criticism of the FISC has been that it rubber-stamps federal applications for surveillance, a contention critics say is demonstrated by the fact it rarely rejects one. Intelligence community officials have said in recent oversight hearings that the approval rate masks judicial challenges to intelligence requests made earlier in the approval process that last until the applications are of an approvable nature.

"While I've got confidence in the court and I think they've done a fine job, I think we can provide greater assurances that the court is looking at these issues from both perspectives--security and privacy," Obama said.

Obama also said his administration is forming a group of outside experts who will "review our entire intelligence and communications technologies." In addition, he said the NSA will put in place a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, and he noted recent declassification of surveillance information by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Also on Aug. 9, the White House released a white paper (.pdf) detailing legal justification for Section 215 bulk collection that mostly expounds on arguments already made by intelligence officials. The NSA also released a paper (.pdf) focused on legal authorities, such as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (codified at 50 USC § 1181a), that permit it to surveil Internet communications content through a FISC order. Section 702 permits the NSA to target the communications content of non-U.S. persons thought to be located outside the United States.

For more:
- read a transcript of the Obama Aug. 9 press conference
- read a White House statement on surveillance reform
- download the White House white paper on Section 215 surveillance (.pdf)
- download the NSA paper on surveillance authorities from NSA.gov

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