Obama Spying Recommendations Will Anger Privacy Advocates

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Thursday, 16 Jan 2014 09:25 AM

By Melissa Clyne

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After months of outrage and debate over U.S. intelligence-gathering methods, President Obama will recommend only minor changes to the program, The New York Times reports.

In a speech to be delivered Friday at the Justice Department, Obama will buck the recommendation of a panel of advisers he appointed and not endorse moving bulk data from the National Security Agency to individual telephone companies, an action privacy advocates had sought.

Instead, the president will put the onus on Congress to figure out where to store the information, according to the Times.

The decision has rankled the American Civil Liberties Union, whose executive director, Anthony Romero, accused the president of “passing the buck.”

“President Obama’s speech on Friday will not only determine the direction of national security policies and programs, but also define his civil liberties legacy,” Romero said in a statement reported Wednesday by The Washington Times. “If the speech is anything like what is being reported, the president will go down in history for having retained and defended George W. Bush’s surveillance programs rather than reformed them.”

Already, critics are postulating that Obama’s recommended changes are mostly cosmetic and that major decisions will be put in the hands of a deeply divided Congress that operates in gridlock.

The president will also field criticism for his expected decision to put in place greater privacy protections for foreigners, The Washington Post reports. Among the hundreds of thousands of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was evidence showing U.S. intelligence officials listened in on phone calls of foreign leaders.

“The entire mission of our intelligence agencies is to collect foreign intelligence without regard to the civil liberties of the targets against whom we’re collecting,” a former senior intelligence official told the newspaper. “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.”

Changes the president is expected to endorse include increased limits on government access to bulk phone data and creating a public advocate to represent privacy concerns in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a move rejected by federal judges who say the position is unnecessary and could complicate court operations.

John D. Bates, a former chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, authored a letter on behalf of the judicial branch, underscoring to the president and Congress the adverse consequences of the proposed changes.

A public advocate should only be appointed when the court decides one is needed, wrote Bates, who was designated by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to convey the views of the judicial branch. Bates touched on several items, including the court’s objection to opening its rulings to the public. He argued that “unclassified summaries would be ‘likely to promote confusion and misunderstanding,’ ” The New York Times reported.

Bates also objected to another panel recommendation that the FBI obtain court permission for all national security letters, or administrative subpoenas, which allow the agency to collect certain financial and communications records without court approval. It would greatly burden the court’s workload.

CBS News reports that Obama is also expected to reduce the number of data connections, known as hops, surveillance analysts can use to tie communications of terrors suspects to phone numbers. Currently three hops can be used to develop a pattern of terrorist affiliations, but the president is expected to reduce that figure to two.

Obama’s belief that bulk data collection enhances national security has angered privacy advocates and civil libertarians, who are “bracing for disappointment” from his Friday speech, according to USA Today.

“It puts the Obama administration on the wrong side of history when it comes to the civil liberties of Americans,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's liberty and national security program.

The New York Times summed up the president's likely recommendations as “trying to straddle a difficult line in hopes of placating foreign leaders and advocates of civil liberties without a backlash from national security agencies."

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