Obama’s NSA Task Force May Recommend Meaningful Changes

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President Obama’s surveillance task force will reportedly recommend that a civilian should direct the National Security Agency and that it should reform its mass data collection practices. An overview of the non-binding recommendations were described to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, giving the eager public a glimpse of what might be in store.

Unfortunately, the headlines offer conflicting interpretations. If you bother reading multiple news outlets today, you’ll conclude that the president’s spying reform task group is going to recommend a “modest” but complete “overhaul” of the National Security Agency, and “continue” with mass data collection, but in a way that protects privacy.

Here’s what we know:

Last August, President Obama promised that a task force would review the NSA’s Internet and telephone spying practices. According to The Journal, the task force will make a few key suggestions:

1. Put a civilian in charge of the NSA. Right now, that position is held by the hawkish General Keith Alexander, who says there’s no other way to “connect the dots” on terrorist interactions than with vast spying. A civilian, in theory, might be more concerned with civil liberties.

Fox News confirmed today that the Obama administration does not plan on splitting the NSA director’s position into a separate Cyber Command unit; so if a civilian does get appointed, he or she will likely oversee the controversial spying program

2. Leave bulk collection to the telephone companies. Instead of warehousing call records in a military database, the panel will recommend that the telephone companies hold it for safe keeping. Now, since the NSA still needs a judge’s approval to query the information, we don’t know whether this would actually reduce the number of people surveilled

The Wall Street Journal writes that the task force report “aligns very closely” with a bill from House Judiciary member and co-author of the 9/11-era Patriot Act, James Sensenbrenner. Sensenbrenner has been on an NSA-reform tear, claiming that the spy agency is “criminal” and has supported big changes under the Freedom Act, including the end of bulk data collection.

The New York Times reports, however, that “a program to collect data on every phone call made in the United States should continue, though under broad new restraints that would be intended to increase privacy protections”.

There may be some nuanced recommendations to make these seemingly conflicting reports consistent. But until the actual recommendations are made public, we think it’s better that you read some other news. Or maybe this joke.

[Image Credit: Flickr user ell brown]