POLITICS
01/30/2015 01:18 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Obama Gets An Incomplete On NSA Reform

ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Barack Obama promised to reform the National Security Agency a year ago this month. Interviews and a report released Thursday show just how slow the going has been.

The new report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board, an independent agency within the executive branch, gave the administration an incomplete at best. Congress, meanwhile, gets a failing grade.

One of the privacy board's signature recommendations last January was to end the controversial NSA program that collects data on who Americans call and when. The privacy board said the program has "limited value" in fighting terrorism -- but Congress failed to pass a reform measure.

The board gave the administration credit for supporting a proposal to leave the call data in phone companies' hands. But it faulted the Obama administration for not taking the more proactive step of "unilaterally ending the telephone records program, which it could do at any time."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has also called on the administration to take that step. Instead, the Justice Department has kept asking a court to renew approval of its bulk phone data collection program. Supporters say that while the program may not have definitely foiled any terror plots, it does have some value.

"You don't get rid of a fire alarm because you haven't had a fire in your home in five years," said University of Chicago Professor Geoffrey Stone, who was part of a separate, White House-appointed panel to review NSA surveillance and offer proposals for reform.

All the same, Stone said he suspects that given the exposure of the program by Edward Snowden in June 2013, whatever effectiveness it originally had has been greatly diminished.

"I can imagine that the resistance both the NSA and the White House might have for ending the program completely might be the fact that it would give the impression that it was Snowden's victory," he said.

The NSA has also continued to collect the actual content of Americans' communications abroad, like text messages and emails, under a separate program. The privacy board recommended that the administration rein that program in, too -- by requiring more documentation before Americans' communications are searched, as well as more involvement from a foreign surveillance court -- but the agency has moved slowly.

A Congressional push to end so-called "backdoor" searches -- in which the NSA looks for American communications among the messages it has picked up while targeting foreigners -- died before the end of session last year.

Peter Swire, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who was also part of the White House review panel, argued that the administration should be given credit for doing much of what it could on its own. The administration has declassified many surveillance court decisions and announced new privacy safeguards for European citizens, said Swire.

"There's been more progress on surveillance reform than many people have realized," he said.

The administration is expected to offer a status update next month in which it will further outline some of the steps it has taken.

Overall, the kinds of dramatic changes that many advocates hoped for have come nowhere close to fruition. But the phone metadata collection program is set by law to expire in May -- which may give reformers the leverage to enact major changes in exchange for a renewal.

"It has been some time since the Snowden relations, and frankly the rest of the world is watching the U.S. on this issue," said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's really time for our government to take a lead."

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