Thanks to Edward Snowden, the ongoing debate between those who want to ensure the United States can gather any intelligence it needs to protect itself from terrorism and those who are concerned about civil liberties exploded into the public arena three years ago. As reported by NBC News, Snowden released a vast treasure trove of highly classified documents regarding the surveillance activities then being carried out by the NSA. But have these revelations really changed anything regarding privacy issues?
In the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s release of these documents, many politicians and legal experts came forward to demand that the NSA be reformed. Following the leaks, President Obama assembled experts to evaluate the situation. In December of that year, the group published a report in which they recommended a number of significant reforms – such as halting the U.S. government’s gathering of bulk telephone data and limiting the extent of surveillance carried out on foreign leaders.
The group further recommended that telephone records – referred to as metadata – should only be released to government officials when those officials could provide an order from the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
In a speech intended to address the issue at the time, Pres. Obama pointed out the need for intelligence gathering and that what they were doing did not violate the law or ignore civil liberties. At the same time, the President did suggest that the United States government had a special responsibility to closely examine the activities of the NSA – given its powers. Obama in this speech went on to acknowledge that even non-Americans living abroad had legitimate concerns about privacy that should be respected.
Obama proposed placing restrictions on the NSA by limiting phone court orders so that such an order could only extend to phones two steps removed from that of a terrorist suspect – as opposed to the previous standard of three steps. This is a concern because of the geometric nature of such steps.
Finally, the president proposed changing the system so that the phone companies themselves would store the phone metadata, instead of the government doing so. In principle, President Obama’s proposed changes sounded useful and even bold. However, they were a bit vague and not as straightforward as they seemed. As noted by United Liberty, Obama later seemed to walk back on some of these proposals.
For instance, in the following January, he made it clear that the NSA would continue to spy on non-U.S. citizens, such as foreign leaders, if the reason for doing so was sufficiently “compelling,” whatever that means. This is a significant caveat. Finally, he made no mention at this later date about insisting that the FBI have judicial consent for seizing records.
The suggested reforms proposed by the aforementioned group and the president’s less than enthusiastic endorsement of them reflect a core conflict in what the citizens of the United States expect from their intelligence agencies. The central problem revealed in the data released by Snowden was not that the NSA was an out-of-control agency exceeding its authority.
In fact, it seems clear that the NSA never intentionally went beyond the authority provided to it by the administration, the Congress, and various court decisions.
Instead as – Edward Snowden himself as noted – we see a contradictory relationship between the American citizen’s desire for high levels of security and their vehemently expressed desire for maintaining personal privacy and government transparency. While walking the line between these two imperatives has always been difficult, it is even more difficult in today’s environment. In many ways, the rules that have governed the intelligence community in the United States for the last 40 years have begun to break down.
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