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NSA Reformers Brace For Disappointment From Obama's Speech

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is set to announce his vision of surveillance reforms in a speech on Friday, and National Security Agency critics in Congress are bracing for disappointment.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Obama was likely to accept a limited set of incremental changes, and hand the larger decisions to Congress -- which is deeply divided over reform proposals. Obama's speech on Friday has been in the works for months, but when it ends, the question of how the NSA will be changed may be no closer to a resolution.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a chief House proponent of ending the NSA's mass data collection, said he is staying in Washington on Friday to attend Obama's address.

"It's that important," Conyers told HuffPost. "My first evaluation of the speech will be, has he learned anything from what's happened since Snowden, or not? Am I convinced about his sincerity about the alarms that have been raised, and does he have a good solution for it?"

Conyers co-sponsored an amendment with fellow Michigan Rep. Justin Amash (R) in July that would have halted the NSA's bulk collection of phone record data. After intense lobbying from House leaders in both parties, the measure failed by 12 votes.

"What I'm expecting is very modest changes, simply based on the press reports," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who was among the first lawmakers to introduce legislation to reform the NSA's activities after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks began in June.

Merkley co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in June that would declassify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions used to justify surveillance. Despite picking up more than a dozen backers from both sides of the aisle, the Merkley-Lee bill, like most proposed legislative fixes to the NSA, remains stalled in Congress.

Merkley told HuffPost it's ultimately up to Senate leadership to advance any measures that seek to reform the scope of surveillance. "We keep pushing them, but I'm not sure," he said.

Merkley's difficulties are a reminder that Obama isn't the only partner in this tango. Even if the president were to buck the speculation and push for significant NSA changes, Congress would still have its say. As commander in chief, Obama could implement some proposals immediately. But he would need partners in Congress to make them permanent.

For that reason, it appears, the administration will turn to Congress to lead the way. Whether that will result in serious reform is unclear. One House GOP leadership aide signaled an uphill battle to pass substantive changes.

"We hope the president’s speech reflects the reality that programs like this keep Americans safe, and that any changes he proposes must continue to make that the highest priority," the aide said.

"Congress has proved itself pretty incapable" of reforms, said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who on Tuesday introduced a bill that would transfer the responsibility to hold onto Americans' metadata from the NSA to telecom companies.

The agency's phone-tracking program has proved to be one of the most controversial exposed by Snowden. Much of the discussion of the NSA leaks has focused on whether and how to reform that program, based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act. It sweeps up records of every American with a phone, so reformers are hoping that it has generated the most outrage and thus the most momentum for major changes. But even then, they aren't holding their breath.

"I'd like to see a full honoring of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is the whole series of standards for collecting information in the first place," said Merkley. "But I'm not anticipating, based on press reports, that the president is going to really advocate for a full honoring of Section 215."

Obama's reticence may be because this is a debate he would likely rather not be having -- despite his claim that he welcomes it. When the phone tracking program was first exposed, Obama gave a speech defending it. But in the months that followed, it became clear that the public was uncomfortable with the vast scope of the program.

Obama's hand was finally forced by a pair of setbacks that occurred over the span of one week in December. First, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA's call tracking program was likely unconstitutional. Days later, a surveillance review group formed by the White House in August issued a surprisingly tough set of recommendations calling for the intelligence community's operations to be reined in.

"It's not just the ACLU and the usual suspects now," said the Cato Institute's Julian Sanchez. The review group "maybe was appointed with the assumption that they would come out with basically an 'everything is okay' message, and clearly there was a lot of surprise that that didn't happen."

Sanchez's prediction for Friday's speech: "You're going to basically see nobody being very happy."

The review group's 46 recommendations, spread over 304 pages, suggest substantial changes to the way the NSA, the FBI and the CIA do business. They would transfer bulk collection of Americans' telephone records to telecoms, place new limits on overseas wiretaps, and create a privacy and civil liberties advocate in the secret FISA court.

"My hope is for fundamental reform, particularly in the judicial process," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has proposed legislation to create an adversarial system in the FISA court.

Blumenthal attended a meeting between Obama and Senate Democrats on Wednesday evening at the White House. Although the NSA was not a topic, Blumenthal said he raised the subject privately with Obama.

"He's clearly given it a lot of thought and reflection, and my expectation is there'll certainly be some major proposals," Blumenthal said.

Conyers said he wasn't looking for any specific changes from the president, but rather a shift in tone from Obama's previous defense of the programs as critical to national security.

"I'm not looking for A, B, or C," Conyers said. "He already said he is going for a public advocate, which is good and I think will be very helpful. But in a way, that's just the beginning."

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