By Elias Groll, Editorial Assistant, Foreign Policy
Reviewed by John Handley, Vice President, American Diplomacy
Prior to going on vacation, President Obama indicated his willingness to place additional controls on NSA’s controversial collection of telephone records by placing this data in the hands of third parties, namely private phone companies. He additionally indicated a willingness to assure foreigners of some privacy protections as well. On the phone database, federal judges have ruled both that the practice is unconstitutional and constitutional, setting up a probable path to the Supreme Court for a final legal decision. Without commenting directly on the constitutionality or lack there of, the president’s panel, appointed to advise him on this issue, argued that such records collection should be “seriously curtailed.”
Even with apparent public support for the “third-party” proposal, both telecom companies and privacy advocates are skeptical, with the former reluctant to take on an expensive and controversial program and the latter offering that such a “vacuum cleaner” approach offers little if any protection to the public’s communications. Additionally, privacy advocates fear such a database would be susceptible to hacking. The administration apparently likes the third-party idea because it appears to resolve the issue without actually weakening to any significant degree NSA’s ability to collect targeted data.
President Obama, in referring to NSA’s data collection, did provide some encouragement to privacy advocates when he noted that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. The fault line in such collection lies between data collected on Americans and data collected on foreigners. Most civil libertarians argue against such collection on Americans but see no obstacle to the same collection methods used against foreigners. The president implied that collection even on foreigners should be more targeted and less “wholesale.”
As the author concludes, the probability this president, or any president, will institute significant intelligence reforms “remains highly unlikely.” The problem the president faces is political in that no national leader appears ready to run the risk of taking the blame for another terrorist attack that could be linked to a decision to curtail the nation’s intelligence gathering capabilities. Although the president’s panel concluded that the NSA methods simply do not work, the senior leadership of the House and the Senate intelligence committees continue to defend and support NSA’s bulk-collection programs. Even if President Obama wanted to reform the NSA programs, the political reality of Washington DC suggests that very little other than window dressing can be accomplished.