Key points about changes ahead at NSA

  • January 17, 2014 - 8:46 PM

President Obama is ordering changes to spy programs that sweep up Americans’ phone records. Here are some key things to know:


Q: Why did Obama decide to make changes?

A: The president has been under pressure since Edward Snowden took an estimated 1.7 million NSA documents and gave them to journalists. The U.S. public, Congress and allies overseas were shocked to learn the extent of the NSA’s post- 9/ 11 surveillance. Obama promised to review the system.


Q: What are the major changes?

A: Americans’ phone records: Obama has declared that U.S. spy agencies will no longer hold Americans’ phone records. This major shift will take months, if not more, to accomplish.

New limits on access: The administration will require a special judge’s advance approval before intelligence agencies can examine someone’s data. The NSA has been able to decide for itself whether it has reasonable cause to run a query on someone. And analysts hunting through data will have to stay a little closer to the original suspected terrorist or organization. They will be able to look at communications two steps away, instead of three.

Spying on allies: Obama also has ordered significant new restrictions on spying on close U.S. allies. Heads of states that are friendly with the United States will now be off-limits for electronic surveillance. White House officials said they already stopped collection on “dozens” of such targets. Still, there are loopholes. Obama isn’t making clear who qualifies as a close ally, and the restrictions don’t apply to foreign leaders’ aides.

New advocacy panel: Obama is calling for the creation of a new panel to serve as public advocates in cases handled by a special surveillance court. Members of the panel would be cleared to appear before a court that has approved massive surveillance programs entirely in secret, with no input from the public or those who would be surveillance targets. Creating the new panel would require action by Congress.

Protections for foreigners: Obama is also promising new privacy protections for foreigners, aiming to assure citizens of countries in Europe and elsewhere that they won’t be swept up in U.S. surveillance unless there is a compelling national security purpose. The new rules are to be developed in the coming months.


Q: Do the changes happen right away?

A: No. Some involve altering the USA Patriot Act, and that requires Congress to draft, debate and pass legislation, which can take quite some time. Other changes won’t be carried out until the administration resolves big logistics questions.


Q: Will the government get out of my phone records?

A: For now, the NSA will keep collecting and storing call data. The program gathers the phone numbers called and the length of conversations, but not the content of the calls. Obama says the NSA needs to tap those records sometimes to find people linked to suspected terrorists. But eventually he wants the government to begin storing the records elsewhere, to reduce the risk that the information will be abused.


Q: Where will my records go?

A: That’s not yet decided. Obama told Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to find a solution within 60 days, about the time the NSA surveillance programs are up for their quarterly reauthorization by a secret national security court. That could mean arranging for phone companies to store the records, although the companies already are balking at that. The government could create a new third-party entity to hold the records, or come up with another plan.


Q: What about the NSA reading my e-mail?

A: The bulk collection of online data is supposed to target only people outside the United States in national security investigations. But it does end up sweeping up information about some Americans in the process. Obama asked Holder and Clapper to consider whether new privacy safeguards could be added.

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