As a major critic of the Obama administration over the NSA's bulk surveillance programs, the ACLU responded to the president's Thursday announcement regarding reforms to mass collection of telephone records by saying it was a welcome first step, but that much more would be needed before they and other rights groups would be satisfied.
“The president’s plan is a major step in the right direction and a victory for privacy. But this must be the beginning of surveillance reform, not the end," said Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU's executive director.
Though the policy shift at the White House had been signaled earlier in the week, Obama himself stated on Thursday: "I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk," referring specifically to millions of private call records that reporting based on documents by Edward Snowden revealed the NSA have been collecting en masse for years.
"Instead," the president continued, "the data should remain at the telephone companies for the length of time it currently does today."
According to Romero, however, much more must be known about the White House plan before celebrations can occur.
"Today's announcement leaves in place other surveillance programs with equally troubling implications for civil liberties," he said. "Comprehensive reform should begin with passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that safeguards privacy while also ensuring that the government has the tools it needs to investigate real threats. We must restore the proper balance between security and our constitutional rights.”
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At the ACLU blog, meanwhile, staffers are looking more closely at the Obama administration's reform proposals as well as others now circulating in Congress. In one excerpt, staff attorney and expert on surveillance law Alex Abdo explains "why the details matter." And legal councilor Michelle Richardson, in a separate post, explains why neither Congress, nor the American people, should be satisfied with what is so far known about what the White House is calling "reform" while advocating for tougher measures like the ones contained in the USA Freedom Act mentioned by Romero. She writes:
Congress should consider the president's proposal as just an opening offer. They should then make a strong counteroffer to extend these sorts of privacy protections across the board to all of our data. Actually, there's already a way Congress can do this; it does not need to start from scratch.
It's called the USA FREEDOM Act.
Introduced by original PATRIOT Act authors Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the bill would protect not only phone records under section 215 of the Patriot Act – but all records, under all sections of the Patriot Act – as well as amend the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that permits international spying. With over 160 bipartisan cosponsors in the House and Senate, the Judiciary Committees should get to work on it immediately and get it to the floor for a vote. The American people deserve nothing less.
Remember, while the phone records program is the government's most notorious spying program, it's probably not its most invasive one. Let's make sure that the momentum we have going for reform now isn't cut short and wasted on half measures that fail to bury all bulk collection for good.