THE BLOG

Obama's NSA Reforms Off to a Bad Start

08/14/2013 06:51 am ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013
  • Timothy Karr Senior Director of Strategy, Free Press and Free Press Action Fund

President Barack Obama's decision late Friday to suggest reforms to the government's surveillance programs caught many data protection and free speech advocates by surprise.

Is he serious about plans to check the government's massive spying operation and uphold the rights of everyday Americans?

EFF's Rainey Reitman responded with caution: "We take Obama's promises today with a healthy dose of skepticism ... [T]he devil will be in the details when it comes to whether his proposals will be effective."

On Monday, one devilish detail emerged when the White House instructed James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, to form the "high-level group of outside experts," that President Obama had promised to Americans on Friday.

Clapper has been at the center of the NSA controversy for giving Congress false testimony about the full extent of the NSA's spying program in March.

His choice of Clapper to organize this "outside" group was deeply troubling to many. And for good reason. The group's purpose, according to President Obama, is "to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies." He added that it would be an "independent group" tasked with creating a report on the impact of surveillance technologies being used by the government.

"I naively believed 'outside' and 'independent' meant 'outside' and 'independent,'" Marcy Wheeler of Emptywheel wrote on Monday. "It took exactly 72 hours for that good idea to fizzle into a navel gaze directed by the guy who lies to Congress."

And while the White House has since backed away from its decision to give Clapper too prominent a role, this does not bode well for the other reforms proposed by the president. These include a planned congressional review of Section 215 of the Patriot Act and of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts, which are supposed to provide oversight of government surveillance activities.

That's not quite broad enough. "The president made no mention of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA), a provision used by the government to conduct warrantless searches of Americans' communications," wrote the ACLU's Patrick C. Toomey, who added that FAA reforms were urgently needed as well.

There's much that Congress could accomplish through this process, but the public needs to be sure that supposed fixes are not merely designed to add another layer of protection and obscurity for programs that violate our First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Obama said he wants "greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints" on vacuuming up data, and urged Americans to trust him that abuses of existing laws weren't occurring. But the president seems unable to grasp that Americans want more than accountability for the wholesale surveillance of our online lives. We want the government to stop it altogether. And it may take the independent investigatory committee that the StopWatchingUs coalition has called for, and a significant rewrite of several surveillance laws already on the books.

The NSA's dragnet collection of nearly all communications is a direct threat to our rights to connect and communicate in the digital age. Without stronger safeguards, the program will continue to have a chilling effect on our First and Fourth Amendment freedoms.

The nation needs to hear more than reassurances from our president. We need our constitutional rights to be upheld. Any law that allows government to deny us these rights must be struck down.