Moving toward a balance of liberty and security
Balancing the right of Americans to be secure in their electronic and digital communications with the necessity to track the clandestine operations of terrorist organizations both inside and outside U.S. borders is an extremely difficult task.
Focus now is on activities of the National Security Agency, which is the main producer and manager of signals intelligence for the United States. The NSA conducts the global monitoring, collection, decoding, translation and analysis of information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. This includes surveillance of targeted individuals on U.S. soil.
The NSA's origins date back to the World War I as a provider of primarily military intelligence. President Harry S Truman created the NSA - secretly - in 1952.
The NSA's surveillance programs have been under intense scrutiny since government contractor Edward Snowden took an estimated 1.7 million documents related to surveillance and other NSA operations, which he gave to journalists last year. Under its bulk collection of telephone records - which came to light with the Snowden leaks - the NSA gathers numbers called and length of call but does not record conversations.
In August, President Barack Obama appointed a Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies which, in December, issued a report, "Liberty and Security in a Changing World" that made 46 recommendations.
In a Jan. 17 speech at the Justice Department, Mr. Obama announced some definite changes to how the NSA will operate in the future.
Among the changes, Mr. Obama said he would require advance court approval every time an intelligence analyst wants to access calling records, except in an emergency. "Emergency" has been left undefined so far.
In addition, intelligence analysts will now have more limited access to calling records. They will now be able to follow calls only "two hops" away from a number associated with a terrorist organization, instead of the current three hops. That third hop permitted the possible scrutiny of an exponentially increased number of calls.
The president said that U.S. eavesdropping on the leaders of allied foreign countries will cease. Mr. Snowden's leaks of U.S. intelligence gathered on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among leaders in other countries, led to outrage in foreign capitals.
In his directive, the president also said he wished to extend protections to ordinary citizens of other nations, "safeguards, which will limit the duration that we can hold personal information while also restricting the use of this information."
In several instances, the president called for greater oversight and review of procedures and left many details to be worked out in Congress and within his administration.
Most importantly, Mr. Obama also spoke of eventually ending the collection of bulk phone metadata.
"I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the ... bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata."
Acknowledging this goal, the president said reaching it wouldn't be simple. One option is that the phone companies retain the bulk records; another is to find or create a third party to keep the phone records.
"What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale, not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review and nothing that I have learned since indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens," Mr. Obama said. "They're not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails."
We feel that the president's speech and directives are a step in the right direction. Yet, he did not answer the basic question of whether the NSA's surveillance and data collection programs are indeed making us safer. Many individuals and groups in a position to know say they haven't.
Vt. Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sat in the audience right behind Attorney General Eric Holder during the president's speech. Afterward, Leahy issued a statement saying "the bulk collection of Americans' phone records has not made us safer."
In certain areas, the president overlooked the recommendations of his advisory panel altogether, such as to stop undermining commercial efforts to create better encryption technology. The NSA reportedly has collected and exploited flaws in such technology produced by U.S. companies to penetrate and undermine targeted networks overseas.
Another advisory panel recommendation the president didn't address was to demilitarize the NSA, to clearly designate it as a foreign intelligence organization, and to make its head a senateapproved civilian.
So, while the president has taken a step in the right direction, he did not go far enough. The good news is that much has been left to administrative review and Congressional oversight - consideration and debate will continue.
And as Mr. Obama acknowledged, "we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed." So we are in a process of reform and debate that likely will be ongoing for years.
Few would deny the U.S. needs to exercise digital and electronic surveillance of terrorist networks and enemy governments, just as few would deny that we must not compromise the right to privacy of law-abiding Americans.
Finding the proper balance remains a work in progress.
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