Thursday, May 14, 2015

Let's Be Clear About Who Does/Doesn't Support Ending the NSA Metadata Program

Yesterday the House passed the "USA Freedom Act."
Under the bipartisan bill, which passed 338 to 88, the Patriot Act would be changed to prohibit bulk collection by the National Security Agency of metadata charting telephone calls made by Americans. However, while the House version of the bill would take the government out of the collection business, it would not deny it access to the information. It would be in the hands of the private sector — almost certainly telecommunications companies like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, which already keep the records for billing purposes and hold on to them from 18 months to five years.

So for the N.S.A., which has been internally questioning the cost effectiveness of bulk collection for years, the bill would make the agency’s searches somewhat less efficient, but it would not wipe them out. With the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the spy agencies or the F.B.I. could request data relevant to an investigation.
Now it goes on to the Senate, where it faces a slightly more uphill climb because Majority Leader McConnell opposes these changes to the "metadata" program, along with some of the more hawkish members of his caucus. The trouble is, if Congress does nothing, this portion of the Patriot Act expires on May 30th and the whole program will end. So we're likely to see some interesting dynamics about it all over the next couple of weeks.

So what is President Obama's position on all this? That's where Steve Benen's reporting was disappointing (to say the least).
As for the Obama administration, don’t look for executive-branch officials to get too heavily engaged, at least not yet. White House officials – and the NSA - have signed off on the House bill as an acceptable compromise, but in all likelihood, the West Wing probably wouldn’t mind the Senate’s approach of leaving the status quo intact, either.
Benen provides no links or supporting information for this opinion. And the facts show otherwise.

First of all, the White House has issued a statement in support of the USA Freedom Act. Secondly, the Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence have written a letter in support of it. Finally - and perhaps most importantly - back in January 2014 (long before the USA Freedom Act was written) President Obama gave a speech in which he outlined the steps he was going to take in response to a review of signal intelligence activities by a task force he created. Here is what he said about the "metadata" program back then:
For all these reasons, I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata...

Because of the challenges involved, I’ve ordered that the transition away from the existing program will proceed in two steps. Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of the current three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.

Next, step two, I have instructed the intelligence community and the Attorney General to use this transition period to develop options for a new approach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that the Section 215 program was designed to address without the government holding this metadata itself. They will report back to me with options for alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28th. And during this period, I will consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views, and then seek congressional authorization for the new program as needed.
In other words, this was all President Obama's idea in the first place. Beyond the specifics of this program, that is significant because I can't remember too many times in the past when previous presidents have advocated for a reduction in their own executive power.


  1. Pfft. I quit reading Steve Benen a long time ago. He's just not worth the time.

  2. I experienced Bush intrusions - a private email hacked, questions to me about it followed by a demand for the participants' names and addresses that I refused to provide. Followed then by 3 years of odd interactions with the FBI. After 2007 and through this administration, NOTHING happened to intrude on my life, my individual or organizational privacy. Metadata is anonymous data. A wall of numbers to which NOTHING happens unless one lights up, so to speak, as the target of a known terrorist from overseas. I am less anonymous in the phone book (paper OR online). I am no longer stalked by the government - I'm stalked by Bed, Bath & Beyond. The government knows far less - and cares far less - about any of us unless we come to require a warranted search. So fine we get MORE protection, but the time to yelp and scream was the Bush years before court cases ended the warrantless invasions that I experienced. Why is everyone so upset NOW rather than THEN? Oh - right - Bush was targeting Muslims, Muslim supporters (even domestic ones), and nobody gave a damn. Got it.

  3. Probably better to keep this quiet - you know what would happen if the Republicans found out that Obama agreed with them...

  4. This is representative of a bigger problem that is widespread throughout the media/academia axis: a paranoid obsession with the First Amendment and first amendment concerns. The NYT recently reported that the current rate of police murders has been going on for decades. Remarkably, the story did not point out that the NYT has been ignoring said murders for decades. Want they haven't ignored is the sad parade of arrogant stenographers from Judith Miller to James Risen, portraying everyone as a First Amendment martyr.

    If you talk to elite white people in the two institutions that control our national discourse, the press and the academy, you find that the right to freedom of speech is far more important that the right not to be murdered by your own government.

    The problem is magnified by the persistent press bias in favor of the individual and against all institutions (except, of course, the great free press).

    This double bias means that government is always moving closer to 1984, no matter what the facts might be.