Privacy advocates fear ‘largely cosmetic’ NSA reform package

AP

President Barack Obama’s blueprint for overhauling the government’s sweeping surveillance program is just the starting point. The reality is that few changes could happen quickly without unlikely agreements from a divided Congress and federal judges.

The most contentious debate probably will be over the future of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records from millions of Americans. Obama is expected to back the idea of changing the program in his highly anticipated speech on Friday, but will leave the specifics to Congress, according to U.S. officials briefed on the White House review.

That puts key decisions in the hands of congressional lawmakers who are at odds over everything from whether the collections should continue to who should house the data.

Even a widely supported proposal to put an independent privacy advocate in the secretive court that approves spying on Americans is coming under intense scrutiny. Obama has indicated he will back the proposal, which was one of 46 recommendations he received from a White House-appointed commission. But a senior U.S. district judge declared this week that the advocate role was unnecessary, and other opponents have constitutional concerns about whether the advocate would have standing to appear in court.

The uncertain road ahead raises questions about the practical impact and efficacy of the surveillance decisions Obama will announce in his speech. The intelligence community is pressing for the core of the spy programs to be left largely intact, while privacy advocates fear the president’s changes may be largely cosmetic.

Stephen Vladeck, a national security law expert at American University, said the key questions will be “how much of this reform conversation is going to be about curtailing the specific surveillance programs and how much of it is going to be instead about improving the checks and balances on the programs that already exist.”

For Obama, changing the overseas spying program may well be easier than implementing domestic reforms. The administration can enact two international surveillance changes on its own that officials say the president supports: extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens and tightening the protocols for decisions on spying on foreign leaders. It remains unclear, however, whether those steps will be enough to soothe international anger.