Contracting and Expanding the NSA’s Powers

Can we be generous enough to say that Edward Snowden scored a considerable coup last week with the change in Washington’s attitudes to the National Security Agency? Even by his own admission, the whistleblower is pleased that the bulk collection of records may well be seeing its last days. In a statement released through the American Civil Liberties Union, Snowden used the term “turning point”, a rather tepid observation that did not detract from his overall sentiment.

A few plans are now on the table. There is the USA Freedom Act (Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill), the House Intelligence Committee Bill and the President’s own proposal. The latter has yet to find legislative form. President Obama’s proposal involves allowing phone companies to retain their databases of records in standardised, interoperable format. The focus on storage will shift from government agencies to telephony companies. The NSA would, in obtaining access, have to seek an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In turn, the FISC would have to be satisfied that the records pertained to a person connected with a terrorist organisation.

The enthusiasm for the changes last week was certainly evident. The Baltimore Sun (Mar 24), in skewed fashion, saw the House Intelligence Committee’s efforts as ending bulk data collection. Jameel Jafeer, writing in Just Security, was questioning of the President’s proposals but did call it a “milestone. The administration’s proposal is an acknowledgment that a program that was endorsed in secret by all three branches of government, and that was in place for about a decade, has not survived public scrutiny.” Jafeer is also confident that this was “an acknowledgment that the government’s legitimate intelligence interests can be accommodated without placing the entire country under surveillance.”

 

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