According to early read outs of President Obama’s speech on intelligence reform, the president mostly punted to Congress and tried to split the difference on reform. Some have said his intelligence reforms are just “window dressing.”
However, a close look at what Obama proposed — especially in a presidential directive he issued on Friday — reveals very troubling changes that will undermine key intelligence capabilities and add to the risk averse environment that has been plaguing U.S. intelligence agencies since the end of the Iraq War.
My first reaction the speech was that it could have been much worse. President Obama’s speech began with a strong defense of maintaining robust U.S. intelligence collection. He ignored some of the worst recommendations by his hand-picked intelligence reform panel, such as barring NSA from cracking internet encryption or exploiting software vulnerabilities, proposals that would have put the communications and computers of terrorists and nation-state adversaries off-limits to NSA.
Obama also ignored the panel’s recommendations to restructure the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and did not do away with NSA’s controversial telephone metadata program, an intelligence collection effort involving millions of records of the phone calls of Americans.
No one was surprised when President Obama put limits on the metadata program. Even though the president’s reform panel found no abuses of this program and he conceded that the U.S. intelligence community “has not sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” the president still announced steps to reorganize and rein-in the metadata program. Under the new rules announced by the president, the metadata program can now only be queried after a judicial finding or in an emergency.
This will not only make it much more difficult for intelligence analysts to use this program, it places judges in an intelligence policy role that should be left to senior intelligence officials.
Obama also wants metadata to be held by private third parties, not NSA. Phone companies have said they do not want to hold this data. There also are concerns that placing this information in the hands of a third party will create real privacy concerns.
While most supporters of NSA programs were dismayed by Obama’s reforms of the metadata program, he announced other decisions on granting privacy rights to foreigners that are far more troubling.
Leaks of classified documents by Edward Snowden that NSA was listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and was conducting mass electronic surveillance collection against European citizens caused an outcry in Europe.
Obama responded not only by putting strict limits on how U.S. intelligence agencies can spy on the heads of state of U.S. friends and allies, he declared that the privacy and civil liberties of all people worldwide must be “integral” to U.S. signals collection.
Obama’s new NSA reform directive also says that if the privacy rights of a foreign person are violated, the United States will take steps to determine whether to notify the non-U.S. person’s government.
This is stunningly naïve. Non-U.S. citizens are not entitled to U.S. privacy rights. Trying to impose such a standard on U.S. intelligence agencies will severely limit their capabilities and bog them down with crippling rules and regulations. It also goes against the very nature of intelligence: to steal information abroad to advance U.S. national interests.
Remember that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were hatched by Mohammed Atta and other al-Qaida members in Hamburg, Germany. Will Obama’s new privacy rights for non-U.S. citizens abroad prevent NSA from collecting information against the next terrorist plot against the United States being planned in a friendly state?
There are other restrictions Obama is putting on U.S. intelligence collection. Bulk collection of signals intelligence can now only be used for very narrow national security reasons: espionage against the U.S., terrorism, WMD proliferation, cybersecurity, threats to U.S. troops, and transnational criminal threats including illicit finance and sanctions evasion.
These restrictions suggest President Obama does not trust NSA. They are also arbitrary and deny intelligence officials the flexibility to focus on other U.S. national security interests. For example, these rules appear to bar intelligence collection against potential coups against friendly governments and human rights violations. They also would prevent collection against threats to the U.S. economy, such as efforts by OPEC nations to raise oil prices.
There is hope that some of President Obama’s more troubling intelligence reforms will be rolled back by Congress or after Justice Department and intelligence officials review them. However, the thrust of these reforms is unlikely to be reversed and will undermine U.S. intelligence capabilities and discourage intelligence officers from conducting aggressive foreign intelligence collection to defend this country. If a Republican assumes the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 2017, Obama’s intelligence reforms ought to be rescinded first thing.
Fred Fleitz served for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is currently Chief Analyst with LIGNET.com, Newsmax Media’s global intelligence and forecasting service. Read more reports from Fred Fleitz — Click Here Now.
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