There was some good news in President Obama’s comments about NSA’s phone-record program today during his press conference. The president did say that both federal judge Richard Leon’s decision earlier this week and the reckless recommendations made by a panel of administration loyalists found no evidence that this program violated the privacy rights of Americans — this was an important endorsement.
Fortunately, the president did not accept the recommendations of the NSA review panel. He said he plans to study its findings and consult with experts inside and outside of government before he announces next month how he will proceed. This means intelligence experts and Congress’s intelligence committees have a few weeks to weigh in with the White House to prevent the panel’s many ill-advised recommendations — which include hamstringing the phone-records program and offering privacy protections to foreigners abroad — from being enacted.
The president said that some changes to NSA programs are inevitable to reassure the American people. He’s right about that, and everyone in Congress knows it. The challenge is getting this right by implementing reforms to tighten NSA programs without putting so many legal and bureaucratic restrictions on them that they are rendered useless.
What troubled me were comments by the president that he is considering accepting the panel’s recommendation to restrict the NSA phone-records program and may also be thinking of agreeing to restrictions on spying on U.S. allies.
The congressional intelligence committees — not the politicized Obama NSA panel or a single district-court judge — should be at the center of reforming the NSA and other intelligence programs that are currently under fire. (As I wrote in this NRO piece posted earlier this week, the NSA phone-records program has survived 35 legal challenges by 15 judges.)
But intelligence-agency heads must do the heavy lifting over the next few weeks. As former CIA director Michael Hayden said this week, U.S. intelligence officials need to “man up” to convince the president to accept reasonable reforms. They shouldn’t accept naïve proposals that will do real damage to crucial U.S. intelligence programs that play an important role in protecting the homeland.
— Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst, is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy and Chief Analyst with LIGNET.com.