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Reform of the U.S. Intelligence Community Post-Snowden

June 19, 2014
Privacy advocates, technology companies, lawmakers, and the intelligence community will have to reach some kind of compromise soon, but the threat of time may enable reformers to reach a more favorable agreement (Byers, 2014). Although it is yet uncertain what intelligence capabilities will look like under any new reforms, Snowden’s disclosures certainly changed the nature of the debate over U.S. intelligence authority.

Author: Tara Hofbauer, SAS’15

Monday, June 9, marked the one-year anniversary of the revelation of the identity of the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked a massive number of classified U.S. national security documents. Edward Snowden, now a household name, shared the information he stole with journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Barton Gellman. Based on the documents, they then went on to publish stories, which detailed the surveillance actions of the American intelligence community. Their articles touched off a widespread public debate about the struggle between ensuring national security and safeguarding citizens’ privacy and civil liberties. However, these reports also represented an unprecedented breach of America’s national security. A declassified Defense Intelligence Agency report on the impact of Edward Snowden’s disclosures reveals, “The scope of the compromised knowledge related to U.S. intelligence capabilities is staggering” (Defense Intelligence Agency, 2014, p. 12).

NSA Seal

The journalists disclosed the existence of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program. Under the USA Patriot Act, the intelligence community has the authority to collect broad swathes of Americans’ Internet and telecommunications information. Intelligence analysts rely on technology and telecommunications companies to obtain this information, and although the NSA must receive approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to access the data, proceedings before the FISC are closed. Moreover, no public defender or advocate appears before the FISC judge. Thus, privacy advocates seek reform that would limit the government’s access to citizens’ Internet and telephone communications. Lawmakers are tasked with finding a solution that allows the intelligence community to do its job in protecting the nation from threats, while also protecting civil liberties.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner

In October 2013, in response to public outrage and such calls for reform, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the author of the USA Patriot Act, introduced the USA Freedom Act to the floor of the House of Representatives. His bill sought to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), end bulk collection of metadata, and increase transparency (Sensenbrenner, 2013). Among its provisions, the USA Freedom Act would:

1) End all bulk collection of metadata by the NSA, but force telephone companies to retain the data instead. The NSA would have to obtain a court order from the FISC in order to access the information (USA Freedom Act, 2014).

2) Establish an Office of the Special Advocate (OSA), which would represent privacy interests before the closed proceedings of the FISC (Sensenbrenner, 2013)

3) Allow technology companies to semi-annually disclose to the public requests they receive from government for information.

In late May, the bill passed the House by a vote of 303 to 121. It received strong bipartisan support, with 179 Republicans and 124 Democrats voting for it. However, some of its original supporters ended up opposing it. The Washington Post reported, “Privacy advocates, technology companies, and lawmakers warned that the version of the bill passed by the House was watered down to the point where they could no longer support it” (Peterson, 2014). Among other things, they took issue with the definition of the different terms the government could use in outlining the scope of its information requests to the FISC. Privacy advocates believed that the language that was ultimately passed would allow the government to continue its metadata collection. However, the bill’s supporters noted that it was better than nothing.

On June 5, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) held an open hearing to consider the House’s USA Freedom Act. They heard testimony from both government and non-government officials regarding the impact of the bill, and although the reform act passed the House with a substantial majority, if the SSCI hearing is any indication, its path through the Senate will be much rockier. Members of the committee expressed opinions on both sides of the reform debate. For instance, while Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) took exception to the limited amount of reform actually contained in the bill, “Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss… found the bill too aggressive” (Byers, 2014).

Furthermore, a coalition of leading technology companies, operating under the heading Reform Government Surveillance, sent an open letter to the Senate, asking members to pass a tougher version of the USA Freedom Act. The signed companies include giants, such as Facebook, Google, Dropbox, and more. They maintain that the House bill “could [continue to] permit bulk collection of Internet ‘metadata’” (Armstrong, et al., 2014). Their assertions contrast those of the administration, though. In her testimony before the SSCI, Stephanie O’Sullivan, Deputy Director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, stated, “The intelligence community understands and will adhere to the bill’s prohibitions on all bulk collection under these authorities” (O’Sullivan, 2014).

Such a variety of opinions represents a major obstacle to Senate passage of the USA Freedom Act. However, whether or not the Senate passes the House’s bill, reform will have to come soon. The NSA’s bulk collection authority under the USA Patriot Act is set to expire in a year. Privacy advocates, technology companies, lawmakers, and the intelligence community will have to reach some kind of compromise soon, but the threat of time may enable reformers to reach a more favorable agreement (Byers, 2014). Although it is yet uncertain what intelligence capabilities will look like under any new reforms, Snowden’s disclosures certainly changed the nature of the debate over U.S. intelligence authority.

Armstrong, Tim, et al. (2014, June 5). An open letter to members of the Senate. Reform Government Surveillance. Retrieved fromhttps://www.reformgovernmentsurveillance.com/USAFreedomAct.

Byers, Alex. (2014, June 5). Senate panel split on surveillance reform. Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/story/2014/06/surveillance-reform-senate-panel-107504.html?hp=l10.

Peterson, Andrea. (2014, May 22). NSA reform bill passes House, despite loss of support from privacy advocates. The Washington Post. Retrieved fromhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/05/22/nsa-reform-bill-passes-house-despite-loss-of-support-from-privacy-advocates/.

Sensenbrenner, Jim. “The USA Freedom Act.” (2013) Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. Retrieved fromhttp://sensenbrenner.house.gov/legislation/theusafreedomact.htm.

USA Freedom Act: Hearing on H.R. 3361. Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 113th Congress. (2014) (statement of Stephanie O’Sullivan, Deputy Director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence).

USA Freedom Act, H.R. 3361, 113th Cong., 2nd Sess. (2014, June 5). Retrieved from https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1164932-113h3361-flr-ans-001-xml.html.

U.S. Department of Defense. (2013, December 18). DoD Information Review Task Force-2: Initial Assessment. Defense Intelligence Agency. Retrieved fromhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2014/may/22/pentagon-report-snowden-leaks-damage-report.



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