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Critics Ready "Failing" Grade for Obama's NSA Reforms

Though 6 in 10 Americans support major reforms of NSA, Obama expected to punt on key changes to agency's controversial surveillance tactics

- Jon Queally, staff writer

"If [Obama's] speech is anything like what is being reported," says ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero, "the president will go down in history for having retained and defended George W. Bush’s surveillance programs rather than reformed them."(Photo: Getty Images)Ahead of a speech announcing his ideas for reforming the National Security Agency and its mass surveillance programs exposed over the last eight months, worries are pitched that President Obama will not go nearly far enough in his proposals to rein in the agency.Click for larger image. (Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Based on a series of leaked "insider" reports on the contours of Obama's reform package, the ACLU issued a warning to the White House that what Obama announces publicly during his speech on Friday could well determine his entire legacy when it comes to civil liberties.

"If the speech is anything like what is being reported," said the group's executive director Anthony D. Romero, "the president will go down in history for having retained and defended George W. Bush’s surveillance programs rather than reformed them."

According to Foreign Policy:

When President Barack Obama gives his much-anticipated speech on NSA surveillance Friday, he's unlikely to seize the opportunity to rein in the agency's vast surveillance programs. Instead, he will punt. Of the 43 recommendations from a panel that reviewed the agency's programs, Obama is expected to embrace very few, according to U.S. officials and news reports, leaving the harder task of long-term surveillance reform to Congress and the courts.

Intelligence officials, as well as privacy advocates and lawmakers who have met with White House aides in recent days, now expect that the NSA will continue to collect and retain the phone records of all Americans. That's the outcome that NSA officials have wanted since the program was revealed in June 2013 by Edward Snowden, and one that the review panel urged the president to avoid. Obama may tweak the program -- limiting the amount of time the NSA can keep those records or how broadly it can search in the database where they're stored. But it's hard to see the president's answer to what was undoubtedly the most controversial of all the surveillance programs as anything but a victory for the NSA.

If that's true, say his critics, it's wholly unacceptable.

“Keeping the storage of all Americans’ data in government hands and asking ‘lawmakers to weigh in,’ as reported," said Romero, "is passing the buck – when the buck should stop with the president. If Congress fails to act on this matter, as it has on other critical policy issues, President Obama will effectively be handing off a treasure trove of all our private data to succeeding presidents – whether it is Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, or Hillary Clinton.”

Obama's end-of-week speech will come a day after new polling released on Thursday shows that a strong majority of Americans want to see the surveillance powers of the NSA curtailed even as they show lost confidence in the Obama administration, or the government in general, of enacting the necessary fixes. As the Guardian reports:

A poll by the Anzalone Liszt Grove Research firm, released Thursday, finds 59% of Americans oppose keeping the NSA’s widespread collection of data unchanged. Twenty-six percent of respondents “strongly” oppose keeping NSA current surveillance in place. 

A majority of respondents, 57%, say they have “not much” confidence in the government’s ability to prevent abuse of the NSA’s troves of US phone records. Similarly, 58% doubt that the government can keep the data safe from hackers.

That scepticism of the NSA echoes concern voiced earlier this week by Geoffrey Stone, a law professor and member of Obama’s surveillance review panel, which recommended taking the bulk collection out of the hands of the NSA. “Government can do far more harm if it abuses information it has than private entities can,” Stone told the Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday.

As part of their effort to hold Obama accountable and articulate their critique of NSA overreach, the online privacy and digital rights groups Electronic Frontier Foundation has created a "NSA Reform Scorecard" that presents a list of "common-sense fixes that the President could—and should—announce" during Friday's briefing.

According to EFF's Cindy Cohn and Rainey Reitman, many of the measures contained in the 'scorecard' are similar to those "proposed by the president’s own Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which produced a report with 46 recommendations for Obama in December.

Though Cohn and Reitman acknowledge the list is not comprehensive, they contend it does address "the central problems with NSA surveillance" and say taking these steps would "go a long way toward restoring America’s trust in its government and resolving some of the most egregious civil liberties abuses of the NSA."

Like the ACLU, however, EFF's stated worry is that instead of ending the abusive spy tactics of the NSA, "Obama could just make pronouncements calling for more transparency or additional layers of bureaucratic oversight. Basically, he could duck the most important thing he could do to show leadership: rein in government surveillance."

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