Civil Liberties Groups Call For Obama To Enact NSA Changes

Dec 19, 2013
Originally published on December 19, 2013 5:42 pm
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And I'm Melissa Block.

When President Obama leaves the White House tomorrow for his Christmas vacation, he'll be toting some not-so-light holiday reading. The 300-plus page report on NSA surveillance is filled with recommendations on how to rein in the government's electronic spy agency. The president asked for the report last summer. That was after leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed just how widespread the government's data gathering has been. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, civil liberties groups are hoping the president will follow through on the suggestions.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Privacy advocates were cheered by the overall tone of the intelligence review, which called for significant new limits on electronic surveillance. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who has been critical of the government's wide-ranging dragnet, notes the report comes just days after a federal judge ruled the bulk collection of telephone records is probably unconstitutional.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: The combination of the report yesterday, plus the judge's decision early in the week, has made this extraordinary time for the cause of intelligence reform.

HORSLEY: The call for new limits on government surveillance is all the more striking because the panel was not weighted with civil libertarians. Its members included a former top CIA official and a counterterrorism chief. But they still came down on the side of more privacy protection. Staff attorney Alex Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union says the White House should pay attention.

ALEX ABDO: Not many people expected the report to be as extensive and thorough as it was. So we're hoping that the president will take seriously the insights of really a neutral take on what's going on.

HORSLEY: The Obama administration has already ruled out one of the panel's recommendations, separating the NSA from the military cyber command. But White House spokesman Jay Carney says the president is open to the other 45 suggestions. Carney says Obama won't do anything that compromises national security.

JAMES CARNEY: But he does believe that we can take steps to refine our practices and make sure that we are gathering intelligence in a focused way and not just because we can, because we have the capacity to do so.

HORSLEY: The review panel says the government should stop collecting and storing bulk telephone data and should instead rely on telephone companies or a private third party to hold that information, scanning it only in the case of a court-approved inquiry. Both the president and the NSA have defended the data collection as a key tool in fighting terrorism but Wyden says the review panel belies that.

WYDEN: This report makes it clear that collecting all this information is not essential to preventing attacks.

HORSLEY: There is a brewing confrontation in Congress where some lawmakers want to codify the NSA's existing practice. Wyden and other privacy advocates say while the government is not actually listening in on calls, just gathering all those records is intrusive.

WYDEN: If the government knows who you called, when you called and, in some instances, where you called from, they know a tremendous amount about you.

HORSLEY: The bulk collection of telephone records is just one aspect of the NSA's operation that drew harsh scrutiny from the review panel. In general, the group said the government should not be allowed to collect and store vast quantities of personal information for the purpose of future data mining. The ACLU's Abdo says that's an important principle.

So much of our digital lives are available every time we interact by phone, by email, when we visit websites. We have to think carefully before we allow that information to be stored over the long term.

In reviewing the NSA's procedures, Obama has sometimes seemed torn between his role as a former professor of constitutional law and his current job as commander in chief. Wyden insists those are not incompatible.

WYDEN: We've constantly been told that there is some kind of tradeoff or you would have to sacrifice X percentage of your freedom in order to have security. And that's being rejected in this report.

HORSLEY: The president is expected to announce his own conclusions on the NSA next month. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.