Both the Obama administration and the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday revealed dueling reform proposals both supposedly intended to reign in the National Security Agency's mass surveillance through limiting the bulk collection of Americans' phone records. However, following the much-heralded announcements, reform advocates slammed the proposals saying "the devil is in the details."
According to information provided to the New York Times by unnamed "senior White House officials," the Obama administration is proposing to end the NSA's mass collection of phone records by instead requesting them from phone companies on an individual, court-approved basis. The companies would not be required to retain records longer than they already do.
Though little information has yet to be released, many critics of the NSA's vast dragnet operations say the proposal clearly does not go far enough.
"The administration doesn't seem to be contemplating new limits on the agency's authority to retain, analyze or disseminate the records it collects," writes Jameel Jaffer, director of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And it isn't proposing to end bulk collection of all records – just the bulk collection of phone records."
"Given all the various ways that the NSA has overreached, piecemeal change is not enough," writes Cindy Cohn and Mark M. Jaycox of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Noting that an existing bill—the "USA Freedom Act" by Judiciary Committee chairs Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner—does much of what Obama proposed and more, Cohn and Jaycox say, instead of paltry legislation, "we urge the Administration to simply decide that it will stop misusing section 215 of the Patriot Act and section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333 and whatever else it is secretly relying on to stop mass spying."
Also today, the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, Reps Mike Rogers (D-Mich.) and Dutch Ruppersberger (R-Md.), announced a bill titled the "End Bulk Collection Act."
Given an advance copy of the House proposal, the Guardian's Trevor Timm notes that the law effectively expands NSA's surveillance power. "The devil is in the details," he writes, adding that "when it comes to the National Security Agency’s unique ability to twist and distort the English language, the devil tends to wrap his horns around every word."
A judge would reportedly not have to approve the collection beforehand, and the language suggests the government could obtain the phone records on citizens at least two “hops” away from the suspect, meaning if you talked to someone who talked to a suspect, your records could be searched by the NSA. Coupled with the expanded “foreign power” language, this kind of law coming out of Congress could, arguably, allow the NSA to analyze more data of innocent Americans than it could before.
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, adds that the House committee proposal "uses reform momentum as a pretext for expanding government power."
"The bill’s modest improvements to the phone records program are not worth demolishing the important judicial role in overseeing these programs," Richardson adds.
Despite these weaknesses, critics agree that the public effort to reign in government surveillance is a clear vindication of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
As Jaffer notes, "the president is acknowledging that a surveillance program endorsed by all three branches of government, and in place for more than a decade, has not been able to survive public scrutiny."
"The question now is whether the administration's proposal with respect to the phone-records program signals a broader recognition that many of the NSA's surveillance activities lack democratic legitimacy," he adds.