A co-author of a 300-page report on the flaws in the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance practices says that almost a year after it was tabled, little has been done to address some of the most serious concerns affecting the privacy of Americans.
“To the extent that the president has the authority, he has adopted several of our recommendations and endorsed others,” said Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at University of Chicago who was in Toronto Wednesday to speak at the Ramsay Talks series. “He’s done what’s in his power. But most of it he can’t do.”
On Tuesday, a bill to rein in NSA bulk collection of telephone records was blocked 58-42 by Senate Republicans, whose numbers will increase following a victorious midterm election that slashed the Democratic majority. Fuelled by the Islamic State’s atrocities against Americans, Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the bill came at “the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs.”
But said Stone, a civil liberties advocate, “the notion that it would impair the ability to protect national security is just wrong. It’s not about saying ‘don’t do what’s necessary to protect the nation.’ It’s saying, ‘Do what’s necessary — but carefully.’ ”
Nevertheless he condemns former NSA contractor Edward Snowden for damaging national security. Snowden’s startling leaks about the agency’s spying on Americans and foreigners prompted Obama to create the panel.
“I’m completely convinced that although disclosure of the (U.S.) meta data program, on balance, was more beneficial than harmful, disclosure of the foreign intelligence programs has made it much more difficult to keep the nation safe from people who are planning to do things against us,” Stone said.
Snowden caused a national outcry by baring details of NSA surveillance of millions of American citizens, tracking “meta data” that provide an electronic trail of users’ phone connections.
After nearly five months of intensive research with top security officials, politicians and privacy experts, The NSA Report: “Liberty and Security in a Changing World,” made 46 recommendations, among them storing data collected on Americans in phone companies for 18 months, rather than in the agency’s data banks. Panel members included former National Security Council official Richard Clarke, former deputy CIA director Michael Morell, Harvard professor Cass Sunstein and Clinton administration privacy co-ordinator Peter Swire.
The report also urged changing the existing procedure so that the NSA would no longer have direct access to data on people it suspects without going to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for authorization. “It’s like obtaining a search warrant,” says Stone. “And it’s a good way of avoiding bad judgment about whether you have reasonable grounds to investigate.”
However, he concluded that the NSA was not the bogeyman it has been portrayed as in the media — but rather an instrument of a system in need of serious reform.
“It had not run amok,” he said. “It was operating under the authorities it had been given by Congress and the judiciary. It was not doing anything of consequence that it wasn’t authorized to do. Fingers should be pointed not at the NSA, but the executive (branch,) the Congress and the judiciary.”