The most illuminating sentences of the speech on intelligence reform that President Obama delivered Friday morning were the first:
At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the ‘The Sons of Liberty’ was established in Boston. The group’s members included Paul Revere, and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots. Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms.
The choice to begin the speech with an homage to spying—however noble—reflects the practical decision that the president announced: to embrace much of the surveillance activity conducted in the name of national security, while accepting a series of modest reforms that civil liberties advocates greeted as but a first step to curbing the National Security Agency.
The reforms that will likely get the most attention affect the telephone metadata program, which is authorized under section 215 of the Patriot Act. The president said he will end this program “as it currently exists,” by giving the intelligence community two months to develop “alternative approaches” that nevertheless preserve the metadata dragnet. He ordered more immediate constraints on the call records program, too. The FISA court must now approve every query, and analysts will only be able to trace numbers two “hops” from an initial suspect, instead of three.
The really significant parts of Obama’s speech were the things he did not mention. He did not call for a full stop to the bulk collection of communication records, only a transfer of ownership. Instead, he endorsed the idea that data about millions of Americans should be stored and made available to intelligence analysts. Tellingly, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers, the NSA’s most ardent and prominent supporters in the Capitol, applauded the president for affirming that using metadata “is a capability that is ‘critical’ and must be ‘preserved.’”
Even given the new hurdles the government will face in querying the data, its collection alone poses serious privacy questions, as civil liberties advocates have been quick to point out. “The president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling,” the ACLU said in a statement. “The president should end—not mend—the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution.”