After criticizing George W. Bush for pursuing a war on terrorism at the expense of Americans’ privacy, President Barack Obama has disappointed civil libertarians by continuing many of his predecessor’s policies. But it was only with the revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that Americans realized how aggressively the government was trawling for information not just about suspected terrorists but also about friendly foreign leaders and U.S. citizens.
When newspapers began publishing Snowden’s revelations, Obama said he welcomed a debate on electronic surveillance and appointed a task force to propose possible changes. On Friday, the president responded to the panel’s recommendations in a speech that went further than many had expected in embracing significant reforms.
Most important, Obama wisely accepted the recommendation that the government no longer collect and store massive amounts of telephone metadata — information about the source, destination and duration of telephone calls that can be “queried” or searched to turn up connections to foreign terrorists. Government possession of such information, the task force warned, “creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty.” It urged that the data be held instead by phone companies or some third party.
Obama didn’t order an immediate end to the current program. Instead, he announced a two-step transition process. In the first phase, new limits will be placed on how extensively the government can query phone records in its possession, and the decision about whether there is reasonable suspicion justifying a search will be made by a court, not by investigators. In the second phase, administration officials will study ways in which the government might relinquish control of the records, and report back to Obama by March 28.
That’s a good start, but lawmakers should ponder a broader question: whether the metadata program is worth continuing even if the records are privately held. The task force concluded that information obtained from it “was not essential to preventing attacks” and could have been obtained by other means.
Obama also will ask Congress to let independent lawyers appear before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and he promised new limits on the use in criminal cases of information collected “incidentally” from communication between foreigners targeted for surveillance and Americans. Finally, he ordered restrictions on the collection of information about foreigners living abroad, private citizens as well as leaders. These are reforms this page has supported.
Obama praised the NSA’s professionalism and denounced Snowden for revealing secrets “that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.” But the overarching theme of the speech was that, with the best of intentions, the government over which Obama presides has gone too far in taking advantage of advanced technology. Now that recognition must be followed by action to restore the proper balance between security and privacy.