The meat of the proposed reforms (emphasis added).
First, Obama said he’d work with Congress on “appropriate” changes to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the section of law that authorizes the National Security Agency to collect and store logs of phone calls made from or to the US.
Second, he said he’d work with Congress to strengthen public confidence in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides judicial oversight to some US intelligence activities. The president said he’d be open to adding an advocate for civil liberties into FISC proceedings, to ensure judges hear both sides of any security versus privacy debate.
Third, he said he’d increase transparency of US surveillance activities as much as possible. The intelligence community is creating a website on which to post information and the NSA will name a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, according to Obama.
Fourth, the president said he’d name a high level group of outside experts to review the nation’s entire intelligence and communications technology effort.
The first point is vague. I don’t know what “appropriate” changes are; Obama probably doesn’t know either. Second point: this might help; I don’t know how the “advocate” is chosen, what power he/she has, who hires/fires this person, etc. Third point: this is like an investment bank’s primary watchdog being some guy they hire and who is on their payroll; you can see the conflict of interest here. Fourth point: this looks helpful; I hope Bruce Schneier is on this panel. If this panel actually has some power/influence, it could be useful for many reasons, including security, privacy, and cost-effectiveness. It’s a good idea regardless.
I don’t really have the audacity of hope on these proposals though. They’re vague and not all that audacious.
“It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well,” said Obama.
I believe Obama is telling the truth here. He wants the American people to have confidence in these programs. That’s not the same as saying he demands civil liberties be protected, or that he disapproves of what the NSA is doing, or that he is seeking serious change. The only opinion stated here is that he wants the American people to feel a certain way.
Perhaps that quote doesn’t fully convey the nuances of what Obama is thinking. Other material I’ve seen of Obama responding to such concerns suggests aloofness and a desire to put the issue behind him. For those reasons, I am not confident that significant action will be taken, at least coming from him.