What Obama Did (And Didn’t) Do To Reform The NSA

President Obama scaled back the National Security Agency’s ability to collect and store telephone data, but did not embrace many of the recommendations experts have proposed to reform the NSA.

In a heavily-anticipated speech Friday, Obama said intelligence agencies can still collect millions of Americans phone records but will instead have to turn them over to a third party and get a judge’s approval before accessing them.

“When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed,” Obama said.

The NSA, however, will hold onto the records for now until the U.S. Department of Justice, Congress and national security officials agree on who will store the phone data. Starting immediately, the agency must get a secret court’s approval before tapping into the database. They must also start limiting their inquiries into American citizens who are “two hops” away from suspected terrorists, rather than three.


The presidential policy directive released Friday ahead of the speech specified that signals intelligence collection could not occur “for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent, or for disadvantaging persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.” The administration will also separately study privacy issues in big data collection in both the public and private sector, perhaps suggesting more sweeping reforms to come.

In its recommendations, the president’s NSA review board suggested phone companies or an independent, private third party keep the bulk phone data to reduce the risk of government abuse. Then the NSA and other intelligence agencies could only retrieve it after getting a court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Even though it hasn’t been decided who will house the phone data, Obama’s decision aligns with a bill introduced Tuesday by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) that mandates the government ask phone companies for records on a case-by-case basis. But the president’s reforms fall short of the pending Senate bill that seeks to abolish phone metadata collection altogether.

Obama addressed very few of the 46 recommendations drafted by his hand-picked review group.

But among the panel’s recommendations, Obama said there should be a public advocacy panel to monitor government programs that may compromise civil liberties. Obama asked Congress to assemble a panel of privacy experts that will weigh in on only “significant and novel cases” that could have broad privacy implications, a senior Obama Administration official said during a news conference call Friday. Because the FISA court also handles individual criminal cases, the privacy and civil liberties panel will only take part in cases “where the court is rendering a judgment that affects a broader privacy equity,” the official said.


However, Obama ducked some changes offered by the NSA panel. For example, no mention was made of the panel’s recommendation to close loopholes that allow government backdoor spying through U.S.-based tech companies, or reforming whistleblower protections.