Obama's remarks will be based, at least in part, on recommendations he solicited in August from a panel consisting of
Perhaps the most significant recommendation is a call for the federal government to stop storing bulk telephone records and adopt a system in which a third party—a telephone company or other business—holds such metadata and allows the government to search it when necessary for national security. Other key suggestions endorse greater controls over data collection and retention. This approach includes raising the bar for approval when the government wants to investigate phone records as well as putting the onus on it to disclose more information about such investigations unless such a disclosure presents a national security threat. Another recommendation calls for the government to consider creating software that would allow intelligence agencies to do more targeted data searches rather than grab data in bulk.
The Snowden effect Through a series of leaks to select media outlets since June, Snowden has shed light on several electronic surveillance programs previously unknown to the general public, including the PRISM program for gathering Internet-based communications such as e-mail and the Section 215 Telephony Metadata Program, so named after Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. The NSA has defended its actions, to a degree, by saying it collects only metadata related to intercepted communications as opposed to the actual content of those messages.
Obama is most likely to accept some of the organizational reforms that the panel suggested, including the creation of a Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board to review the government's foreign intelligence and counterterrorism investigations, says
The panel also made several recommendations to limit the power of the
The call for a FISC public advocate is a bad idea, says
In fact, Lewis thinks the FISC should be given more resources. "They don't have a big support staff, and they don't have people who can advise them on [new surveillance] technology," he says. "In no other process where we go to a court to get a warrant do we have a privacy advocate. This would be an unprecedented and probably silly departure." Missed opportunities Despite the length and breadth of the panel's work, there were some missed opportunities. They could have done more to address the growing rift between the federal government and
The report could also have made stronger recommendations regarding international diplomacy. Although privacy advocates in the U.S. have rallied against the government's surveillance policies, the real damage was done in foreign countries, where leaders and citizens alike have become distrustful of the U.S., Lewis says. "The president giving additional privacy assurances and putting restraints on the NSA is a good start, but we really need a diplomatic strategy to rebuild the trust we've lost with some key partners," he adds.
The recommendations, and Obama's response to them, also raise several questions over any changes a chief executive can implement on his own versus those that will require changes to existing laws. "Almost anything that involves turning off programs, he can do on his own," says
That also means there's no quick fix for the headaches caused by Snowden's revelations. For starters there's not broad agreement in
Regardless of the recommendations that Obama accepts or rejects, the timing of his speech is notable for at least two reasons: Apparently, the surveillance backlash has distracted the Obama administration to such an extent that the president is devoting a separate speech to the issue rather than including it in his
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