Obama trims intelligence gathering

President Obama spoke Jan. 17, 2014, on the NSA and surveillance reforms

President Barack Obama outlined a series of measures Jan. 17 aimed at striking a new balance in intelligence community surveillance programs, placing limitations on the collection and storage of data on the communications of Americans and other individuals and governments worldwide.

In unveiling Presidential Policy Directive-28, Obama acknowledged the enormity of the task, given the vast reach of intelligence activities that have proliferated since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

"This effort will not be completed overnight, and given the pace of technological change, we shouldn't expect this to be the last time America has this debate," Obama said. "But I want the American people to know that the work has begun."

That work includes the establishment of a review board examining intelligence capabilities, restrictions on the government's sweeping collection of telephone data, judicial review before querying telephone records, limits on the amount of data that can be gathered per inquiry and new limits on information collected on Americans and others under previous legal provisions directed at foreign governments.

"These changes represent a significant victory for civil liberties and privacy. They mirror the changes that many of us in the community have been calling for," Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said in a statement. "The president acknowledged that ending bulk collection of the telephone call records by the government is important; he acknowledged that bulk collection of information by the government poses special dangers to civil liberties. In addition, his decisions recognize the importance of requiring judicial orders before the government obtains personal information, even when that information is held by third parties."

The Presidential Policy Directive calls for refining the way signals intelligence is collected and the safeguarding of personal information collected via signals intelligence. It deems long-term storage of personal data not critical to national security as "inefficient, unnecessary and raises legitimate privacy concerns."

The directive also orders better oversight, including periodic audits of the intelligence community and reinforced powers for inspectors general.

But many of the details of how the changes will be implemented were left for others to determine, which means the debates launched in the wake of the leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden are unlikely to abate anytime soon.

"We are encouraged by the reforms announced by President Obama today," Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a released statement. "He has opened the door to ratcheting back NSA surveillance of innocent Americans and non-citizens alike. But for every answer he gave, there are several new questions about how he plans to implement these changes. Ultimately, the full effect of these reforms remains to be seen."

The directive creates, through collaboration between the national security adviser and the directors of the Office of Management and Budget director the Office of Science and Technology Policy, at least one new senior official responsible for working with the director of national intelligence, the IG and other intelligence community officials in developing policies and procedures outlined in the directive.

PPD-28 also orders a number of reports, including a DNI status update within 180 days, an intelligence advisory board assessment on metadata and classification within 120 days and a report within one year examining the feasibility of new software that would provide better targeted means of collecting data.

The president additionally encouraged assessments from the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a group that earlier this year was tasked with examining the implications of U.S. intelligence activities. That group's final assessment is due in the coming weeks, but both Obama and the group's chairman said that PCLOB's findings and assessments were briefed in meetings with the president as well as the vice president ahead of Obama's Jan. 17 announcement.

"The board decided to provide draft copies of key sections of our assessment to the White House in advance of the president's decision-making so that the president would be aware of our study analysis and recommendations as he was developing his position on these issues," said PCLOB Chairman David Medine. "The entire board met with the president and vice president and senior staff in the situation room to discuss the report and recommendations, and each board member had the opportunity to express their views. We had an exchange on these issues and the president is fully aware of our findings and recommendations."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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