NSA

Sunlight Slays Secret Snooping

Why Obama changed his mind about the NSA's phone record dragnet

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Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee last July, Deputy Attorney General James Cole explained why the National Security Agency (NSA) needed to collect everyone's telephone records. "If you're looking for the needle in the haystack," he said, "you have to have the entire haystack to look through."

Judging from the changes that President Obama recommended last week, he has decided that looking for a needle in a haystack might not be the smartest way to prevent terrorist attacks. Obama's decision to eliminate the NSA database he once defended as essential to national security shows how important transparency is in protecting civil liberties, since he thought everything was fine as long as it was secret.

Under Obama's proposal, information about who calls whom, when, and for how long will be retained by the phone companies, not the NSA. It will be preserved for the usual 18 months, as opposed to the five years of data held by the NSA. To obtain information about a particular number, the government will need a specific court order based on reasonable, articulable suspicion that the number is associated with a terrorist or a terrorist organization, rather than a blanket order covering all phone records.

"I am confident that this approach can provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the information they need to keep us safe, while addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised," Obama said last Thursday. Yet none of these reforms would have happened if former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had not revealed the existence of the phone record program, a public service that Obama views as a crime.

Even after news reports based on Snowden's leaks appeared last June, Obama described the NSA's snooping as "modest encroachments on privacy" that "help us prevent terrorist attacks." He claimed all three branches of government had approved the phone record database, since he thought it was OK, judges had secretly signed off on it, and several members of Congress had been briefed.

In short, there was no need to be concerned. "We have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about," Obama said in June.

Polling data from the Pew Research Center suggest that the effect of the president's assurances was the opposite of what he intended. By January, when Obama said he had been persuaded that the process and procedure governing the NSA's access to our personal information could use some improvement after all, 53 percent of Americans were against the phone record database.

It did not help that the administration could not cite a single case in which the database had been crucial in thwarting a terrorist plot. Or that the legal justification for the program, based on the premise that all phone records can be deemed "relevant" to a terrorism investigation under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, seemed like a big stretch, even to the guy who wrote the PATRIOT Act.

At the same hearing where James Cole insisted that the government needs all our hay in one place, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the PATRIOT Act's main author, warned that Congress would not extend Section 215, which is scheduled to expire next year, "unless you realize you've got a problem." Two weeks later Sensenbrenner joined 204 of his colleagues—93 Republicans and 111 Democrats—in voting for an amendment aimed at cutting off funding for the phone record program. Although leaders of both parties opposed the measure, it failed by just a dozen votes, and several Democrats who voted no reportedly had strong reservations.

The amendment's supporters realized that the information dismissed as "just metadata" by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) can be highly revealing, amounting to "a federal human relations database," as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) puts it. Despite Obama's claim that Congress had no objection to the NSA's haystack, legislators rebelled at the idea that their personal information could be treated like so much straw. 

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  1. dismissed as “just metadata”

    You’re just metadata!

    1. Of course you are, my bright little star! I’ve miles and miles of files. Pretty files of your forefather’s fruit. And now to suit our great computer: You’re magnetic ink!

      1. +1 Beginning

  2. When I grow up, I want to be a statistic.

    1. Oh Teddy, you already are one.

    2. you can’t spell statistic without “statist.”

  3. Judging from the changes that President Obama recommended last week, he has decided that looking for a needle in a haystack might not be the smartest way to prevent terrorist attacks.

    He’s decided that he needed to make another promise he has no intention of keeping.

    1. It’s almost like there’s some kind of election coming up.

  4. Obama’s decision to eliminate the NSA database he once defended as essential to national security shows how important transparency is in protecting civil liberties, since he thought everything was fine as long as it was secret.

    Oh, Jacob. Do you really think they’re going to eliminate it?

  5. Comeon dude, jsut roll with it.

    http://www.GotzAnon.tk

  6. ” “If you’re looking for the needle in the haystack….”

    Lets just stop right there. There is no needle and there is no haystack. There is no ‘if’.

    What we are talking about here are citizen’s papers and effects. That is what it actually is. Here are the parameters that you are required to operate within:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    Notice the use of the word ‘particularly’ in there. Metadata my ass. If you have strayed outside those parameters then you have committed crimes.

    1. But … but … not a suicide pact!

      1. what part of live free or die don’t you understand

    2. Oh, Suthenboy! Adhering to the actual text of the Constitution and the BOR is so 18th century! Come on man, don’t you want to be cool, hip, and “with it”?

  7. He claimed all three branches of government had approved the phone record database, since he thought it was OK, judges had secretly signed off on it, and several members of Congress had been briefed.

    Since when does “briefed” means approved? When the robber “briefs” me that he’s taking my wallet, how does that imply he has my approval?

    1. Worse, this is more like the robber “briefing” you and only you that he’s going to steal from your entire family. That’s approval!

    2. “Briefed” means checking the perfunctory contact box.

      “Hey, there’s something called the ‘Affordable Care Act'” = “Members of Congress have been briefed on Obamacare”.

  8. Deputy Attorney General James Cole explained why the National Security Agency (NSA) needed to collect everyone’s telephone records. “If you’re looking for the needle in the haystack,” he said, “you have to have the entire haystack to look through.”

    Right, Jim! And it’s obviously more efficient to find the needle by setting the entire haystack on fire and sifting through the ashes.

    1. or with a magnet unless of course it were non-ferrous….damn you aluminum!!!!!

  9. By doing away with the database I’m sure he really means making it secret again.

    1. They’re going to put a sign on the door saying Verizon, and pretend that what’s behind the door is “at Verizon”.

      1. no they will give up control of the internet to the international community, ie your computer went through another country to process the request, there are no 4th amendment rights in other countries therefore a nice “legal” loophole even if its completly immoral

  10. Fucking quackery from a snake oil salesman. Ban all secret courts and cut the NSA spook budget in half and you start to get my attention.

  11. Does anyone seriously think this will make any difference?

    So the phone records are physically housed at the telephone company.
    So what? I have no doubt they will set up high-speed data lines so they can still query whatever they want, and have a judge rubber stamp it after the fact.

    To say nothing of the fact that no mention is made of email meta-data. So it appears that PRISM is completely unaffected by this.

  12. How does Smith v. Maryland factor into this?

  13. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail
    ?????
    ?????????????? ? w?w?w.?w?o?rk?b?a?rr.c?o??m

  14. I dont understand why ppl think Obama claiming to change his mind has any correlation to reality.

    What they do, they do in secret without oversight. Only a snowden could even accuse obama of lying.

    what is the downside to claiming reform and doing business as usual?

    this is a public confidence issue, not an accountability issue. if they were serious about reform they would start with the concept of clandestine courts.

    as long as clandestine courts exist, its all just fancy talk and the REAL debate is happening in secret.

    if they aint talking about secret courts, they aint talking about reform.

    1. ^^^^ too obvious to be applied in the real world. Your simplistic approach is obviously trumped by FYTW

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