Administration Outlines New Surveillance Overhaul Steps, Reaffirms Support for Bill

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By Alexei Alexis

Feb. 3 — The Obama administration Feb. 3 announced new measures to address privacy concerns surrounding the U.S. government's surveillance activities and vowed to work with the Republican-led Congress on legislation to establish further tweaks.

A report unveiled by the administration outlines privacy safeguards, such as data collection and retention limits, that would apply to personal information collected by the intelligence community going forward. The report marks the one-year anniversary of an overhaul effort launched by President Barack Obama in the wake of revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs.

“This report was issued at the president's direction to make public the progress that the intelligence community is making on reforming some of our signals intelligence activities,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Feb. 3 at his daily press briefing.

He said the report shows improvements that “will help chart a path forward that should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected while preserving important tools that keep us safe and addressing significant questions that have been raised overseas.”

Steps ‘Neither Sufficient Nor Permanent.'

Some said the administration's steps—while positive—don't go far enough and called for Congress to enact tougher changes. One concern is the government's continued bulk collection of telephone calling records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.

“Unfortunately, absent true legislative reform to end bulk data collection programs and to protect the privacy rights of all individuals, these modest changes are neither sufficient nor permanent,” Bijan Madhani, public policy and regulatory counsel for the Computer & Communications Industry Association, told Bloomberg BNA.

Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington policy group, raised similar concerns.

“The reforms announced today do nothing to stop the bulk collection of communications metadata within the U.S. and of communications content abroad—conduct that we believe is illegal and violative of human rights,” Nojeim told Bloomberg BNA. “The administration could end bulk collection without congressional approval. The reforms do, however, include back-end protections, some which are significant, including a three-year limit on national security letter gag orders, and limitations on the criminal cases in which communications collected using certain intelligence authorities can be used.”

Bill Blocked in Senate

In 2014, Senate Republicans blocked a surveillance overhaul bill, the USA FREEDOM Act, introduced by then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

“I was disappointed that Senate Republicans would not even let us debate this bill last year, but with Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act expiring on June 1, Congress will have to engage in a meaningful discussion about Americans’ right to privacy,” Leahy, who now serves as the Judiciary Committee ranking member, said in a Feb. 3 statement. “I look forward to that debate and to working with my partners in the Senate and House to reintroduce the USA FREEDOM Act soon.”

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal agency, Jan. 29 issued a report concluding that many of its surveillance overhaul recommendations directed at the administration are still in the process of being implemented or have only been accepted in principle “without substantial implementation progress”. Among other concerns, the board said that bulk data collection has continued, with modifications, even though the administration has the ability to end the program on its own at any time, without congressional involvement.

At issue are once top-secret surveillance programs that were exposed in June 2013 by Edward Snowden, a former employee of a government contractor.

Under one program, the NSA has relied on Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to justify the bulk collection of Americans' phone metadata, such as numbers dialed. Another program allows Internet surveillance under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

New Safeguards 

New safeguards announced by the administration include:

• requiring the metadata to be stored in secure databases accessible to only a limited number of trained analysts;

• limiting the access to, and use of, the metadata only for counterterrorism purposes;

• prohibiting querying the databases unless there is a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a particular target identifier is associated with particular foreign terrorist organizations; and

• destroying information after five years.

 

The “Intelligence Community has made significant progress implementing many reforms,” the report said. “However, our work is not done.”

Among other next steps, the administration plans to continue working with Congress to enact legislation “preserving essential capabilities of the bulk telephony metadata collection program without the need for the government to hold the data in bulk before Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act sunsets in June 2015,” according to the report.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence will issue another assessment in 2016, the report said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

The “Signals Intelligence Reform 2015 Anniversary Report” is available at http://icontherecord.tumblr.com/ppd-28/2015/overview.