Civil liberties groups are offering faint praise, at most, for the surveillance reforms outlined in President Barack Obama's Friday speech on the National Security Agency, but the White House-appointed NSA review panel seems to be happy. And with the review panel on board, Obama will have one less headache to worry about.
"His speech was excellent. I was quite pleased," said University of Chicago Law School Professor Geoffrey Stone, a member of the panel. "I think at the high level of altitude, he stated the issues very well -- explained the nature of continuing threats, which are real, but also explained the necessity of reviewing things."
The panel, which also included former acting CIA head Michael Morell, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Peter Swire, and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, surprised the political world last month with a surprisingly tough set of recommendations for NSA reforms. Stone said that he had consulted with other panel members, several whom attended the speech, and they were impressed by it as well.
On the "single most important issue" that the review group highlighted -- the NSA's bulk call-tracking program -- Stone said that Obama "did basically what we recommended."
The panel report had called for telecoms to be forced to hold onto customers' call details in lieu of the NSA. Obama said he would either follow that course or create a third-party organization to retain the information instead.
Obama also announced support for variations on other reform recommendations, like giving foreigners additional privacy protections and creating a civil liberties advocate position at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The president dismissed some other recommendations -- such as requiring judicial approval before the FBI can use national security letters to demand customer information from a business, often while imposing a gag order -- but Stone did not fault him too much for doing so.
Obama said requiring that judicial approval for national security letters would give terrorists greater civil liberties protection than ordinary citizens in a criminal investigation, who can have their records collected with a simple subpoena, which usually requires little or no court oversight.
"On balance we think that they've bought into a false analogy," Stone said. "But in the grand scheme of things, I think their position is reasonable. It's not the one we reached."
Other proposals were ignored entirely, like a call for the NSA to stop undermining computer cryptography in its quest to crack communications.
"He couldn't go through all 46 recommendations," quipped Stone. "It would have been a six-hour speech."