Secret Court Approves Obama’s Changes to NSA Phone Sweeps

The decision allows the agency to continue collecting records on billions of calls.

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, June 6, 2013.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Feb. 6, 2014, 2:50 p.m.

The For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court has ap­proved Pres­id­ent Obama’s changes to the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency pro­gram that col­lects re­cords on vir­tu­ally all U.S. phone calls, the ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced late Thursday.

In a bid to ease grow­ing out­rage over NSA sur­veil­lance, Obama an­nounced im­me­di­ate changes last month to the con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram, which was first re­vealed by Ed­ward Snowden. Obama ordered the NSA to seek court ap­prov­al every time it wants to ac­cess the vast data­base of phone re­cords. NSA ana­lysts were pre­vi­ously sup­posed to have a “reas­on­able, ar­tic­ul­able sus­pi­cion” that a phone num­ber was as­so­ci­ated with ter­ror­ism be­fore ac­cess­ing its call re­cords — but it was up to the NSA and not any out­side judge to make that de­term­in­a­tion.

Obama also re­duced the de­grees of sep­ar­a­tion that NSA ana­lysts could stray from their ini­tial tar­get from three to two.

Ac­cord­ing to the an­nounce­ment by the dir­ect­or of na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence, the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, which over­sees the NSA pro­grams, ap­proved Obama’s new tough­er pri­vacy stand­ards on Wed­nes­day. The ac­tu­al court rul­ing re­mains secret.

The ap­prov­al is un­sur­pris­ing as the court had already ap­proved the less strin­gent stand­ards on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions.

In his speech last month, Obama also dir­ec­ted At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er and top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials to de­vel­op a plan for the NSA to give up con­trol over the massive phone data­base. The de­tails of how the NSA could con­tin­ue min­ing the re­cords for pos­sible ter­ror­ist con­nec­tions while not re­tain­ing con­trol of the data­base re­main un­clear.

For now, the NSA will con­tin­ue its sweeps of bil­lions of phone re­cords.

Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy ap­plauded the new lim­its on the NSA data col­lec­tion, but he vowed to con­tin­ue push­ing his le­gis­la­tion to end the pro­gram al­to­geth­er.

“I am glad to see that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is mov­ing for­ward to im­pose im­port­ant safe­guards on its bulk col­lec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ phone re­cords,” Leahy said. “But we must do more than just re­form the gov­ern­ment’s bulk phone re­cords col­lec­tion pro­gram; we should shut it down.”

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