President Obama will announce Friday the National Security Agency reforms he intends to pursue. His decision will be at least partially informed by the recommendations of a White House-appointed review group, which issued its recommendations a few weeks ago. That group had a key finding, echoed by a newly released review by the New America Foundation, that the bulk collection of Americans' data "'was not essential to preventing attacks' and that much of the evidence it did turn up 'could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.'"
Nonetheless, the White House advisory group still recommended bulk collection of phone data as well as Internet data, but with the phone data held by the companies rather than the government. That change, as well as several others he's reportedly considering, will require Congress.
As commander in chief, Obama could abandon certain surveillance practices altogether. For instance, he could simply shut down the so-called 215 program to collect telephone data in the U.S. so it can be used to trace potential contacts of terrorism suspects.Meanwhile, a second congressionally authorized oversight panel—the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board—will be issuing its review of the NSA programs in the coming weeks. That review won't be considered in Obama's proposals, since it's not likely to be released by Friday, but will undoubtedly factor into any potential congressional action.
But the president has said he’s considering replacing that program with a private-sector-based arrangement that provides the government with similar information on a case-by-case basis. That would require Congress to step in, officials said. [...]
The review group also recommended assigning a public advocate to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so judges could hear from an attorney advocating for privacy rights and other constitutional protections for Americans whose data is swept up in surveillance programs. And the panel urged changing the way judges on the court are appointed, so the chief justice no longer has the sole power to make such picks. Those changes, too, would need legislation.
That's where things get interesting. The current intelligence committee chairs, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) are staunch defenders of the status quo, but are butting up against Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), original author of the Patriot Act. The latter two have sponsored legislation that ends bulk collection. The White House hasn't endorsed any legislation yet, though clearly is more closely aligned with Feinstein and Rogers in protecting the status quo. All of this is pointing to a potential stalemate in Congress at least until 2015, when the Patriot Act's Section 215, the program the NSA says authorizes phone data collection, expires.