On Friday 17 January, US President Barack Obama made his long awaited speech on US signals intelligence. The speech came a month after the publication of a report by the Review Group he appointed to look into the issue. At the end of last year, Edward Snowden gave his reaction to the Review Group report in an interview with Fantástico:
“Remember that the advisory group was composed of a hand picked group. Their job wasn’t to protect privacy or to deter abuses, it was to “restore public confidence” in these spying activities. Many of the recommendations they made are cosmetic changes: things that look good but change little.”
The measures described by the Obama in his speech and written into a Presidential Directive are similarly modest: they amend some of the methods used to interrogate collected material, but make little difference to the scale of the collection itself. That aspect of NSA operations is currently being challenged in the federal court system, with one judge finding mass collection “probably unconstitutional.”
The main changes
Obama announced that while the Section 215 domestic call metadata collection would continue, the database would no longer be held by the government. Who will hold the data in place of the government has yet to be decided.
The NSA and other agencies will require approval of the secret FISA court in order to make any future searches of domestic call metadata. In the past, the court has approved almost every government request brought before it.
Metadata searches will be restricted to contacts within two degrees of separation of the targeted individual rather than the three that applies at present.
Rulings of the FISA court will be reviewed annually by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to see if any can be declassified. No FISA court ruling had ever been published before the Verizon Order was released into the public domain.
Other matters were left to Congress to resolve: for instance, the President indicated that an independent panel could represent the public in the FISA court, which presently hears government applications on an ex parte basis. Some of the disclosure rules around the use of National Security Letters – but not the actual use of National Security Letters – could also be changed.
However, several topics identified by the Review Group were entirely absent from the President’s speech. There was, for example, no mention of the NSA’s efforts to weaken encryption standards.
There was also little of substance for those living outside the United States, although the President did seek to assure foreign leaders that thier personal communications would not be targeted.
In his speech, Obama sought to say as little as possible about Edward Snowden – without whom it is inconceivable that he would be paying substantial attention to this issue at all. But it is clear that public appreciation of Snowden’s role, and concern for his safety rides high: in the 24 hours before the US President’s speech, an Avaaz petition calling on Brazilian President Dilma to offer safe haven to Edward Snowden gained over a quarter of a million signatures. The total is now approaching 500,000.
Edward Snowden’s own reaction to Obama’s speech is expected next week.