Lawmakers Skeptical Obama Will Reform NSA After White House Summit

The president sat down with a small group of lawmakers Thursday to discuss NSA surveillance. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Obama promised at his end-year press conference last month to have a "pretty definitive statment" on NSA surveillance reform in January.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Jan. 9, 2014, 9:12 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama met with hand-picked law­makers at the White House on Thursday to dis­cuss the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s con­tro­ver­sial spy­ing pro­grams, the main event of a week full of meet­ings at the White House fo­cus­ing on po­ten­tial re­forms for the ma­ligned fed­er­al agency.

The gath­er­ing in the Roosevelt Room oc­curred ahead of Obama’s planned an­nounce­ment of pos­sible NSA re­forms the ad­min­is­tra­tion hopes to push out be­fore his State of the Uni­on ad­dress at the end of the month. It in­cluded top de­fend­ers of NSA sur­veil­lance, such as Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., as well as loud crit­ics, such as Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner, R-Wis.

At least some of the law­makers left the meet­ing un­con­vinced that the pres­id­ent is go­ing to do enough to cur­tail the NSA’s activ­it­ies. House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, R-Va., said “it’s in­creas­ingly clear that we need to take le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion to re­form” the NSA’s in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing.

“If the pres­id­ent be­lieves we need a bulk col­lec­tion pro­gram of tele­phone data, then he needs to break his si­lence and clearly ex­plain to the Amer­ic­an people why it is needed for our na­tion­al se­cur­ity,” Good­latte said in a state­ment. “Amer­ic­ans’ civil liber­ties are at stake in this de­bate.”

Sensen­bren­ner, whose Free­dom Act would rein in the NSA’s do­mest­ic-sur­veil­lance powers, was even harsh­er.

“All three branches of gov­ern­ment have said the NSA has gone too far,” said Sensen­bren­ner, who also au­thored the post-9/11 Pat­ri­ot Act, from which the NSA de­rives much of its leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion for its data grabs. “Even Pres­id­ent Obama’s hand-picked pan­el agrees that bulk col­lec­tion by the NSA has come at a high cost to pri­vacy without im­prov­ing na­tion­al se­cur­ity. This prob­lem can­not be solved by pres­id­en­tial fi­at.”

Obama’s aides have re­peatedly said he is weigh­ing in­put from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent sources — in­clud­ing 46 re­com­mend­a­tions from his sur­veil­lance-re­view task force — and is still in the pro­cess of de­term­in­ing how to best al­ter the NSA’s data-col­lec­tion prac­tices without lim­it­ing their abil­ity to pro­tect na­tion­al se­cur­ity. What re­mains un­clear is wheth­er Obama con­vened Thursday’s meet­ing to so­li­cit more opin­ion from con­gres­sion­al lead­ers on the top­ic or to try to forge a co­ali­tion of sup­port for a pack­age of re­forms put on the table.

White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney told re­port­ers Wed­nes­day that Obama “wants to hear from [the law­makers] to dis­cuss with them the status of his re­view, which is on­go­ing.” Car­ney ad­ded that Obama is “at that stage still where he’s listen­ing and dis­cuss­ing with a vari­ety of stake­hold­ers [on] these is­sues.”

Thursday’s huddle with 16 law­makers from both cham­bers fol­lowed oth­ers at the White House earli­er in the week with con­gres­sion­al in­tel­li­gence staffers, some tech groups, and the Pri­vacy and Civil Liber­ties Over­sight Board.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates largely re­main skep­tic­al that any ac­tions Obama pro­poses will go far enough in en­sur­ing the NSA is free from po­ten­tial ab­uses, a view­point that many mem­bers of Con­gress share.

Obama sug­ges­ted at his year-end press con­fer­ence last month that some re­forms, par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing trans­par­ency, needed to be made to re­store pub­lic con­fid­ence in the NSA, but stopped short of em­bra­cing any block­buster changes even after a D.C. Dis­trict Court judge de­rided the agency’s bulk data col­lec­tion as “al­most Or­wellian” and prob­ably un­con­sti­tu­tion­al. Obama’s pub­lic pos­tur­ing on NSA sur­veil­lance has re­mained vir­tu­ally un­changed since former agency con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden began leak­ing doc­u­ments about the scope of the pro­grams last June.

Also on Thursday, House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Ro­gers and rank­ing mem­ber Dutch Rup­pers­ber­ger, vo­cal back­ers of the NSA pro­grams, is­sued a state­ment cit­ing a new, top-secret Pentagon re­port pur­portedly re­veal­ing that Snowden’s leaks may “gravely im­pact” na­tion­al se­cur­ity. The re­port also finds that Snowden down­loaded about 1.7 mil­lion in­tel­li­gence files.

“This re­port con­firms my greatest fears — Snowden’s real acts of be­tray­al place Amer­ica’s mil­it­ary men and wo­men at great­er risk,” Ro­gers said in the state­ment. “Snowden’s ac­tions are likely to have leth­al con­sequences for our troops in the field.”

Ro­gers at­ten­ded Thursday’s meet­ing at the White House. Rup­pers­ber­ger, while in­vited, was un­able to at­tend.

An­oth­er meet­ing between White House coun­sel and civil-so­ci­ety or­gan­iz­a­tions was sched­uled for Thursday af­ter­noon. Some tech com­pan­ies are be­lieved to be meet­ing on Fri­day as well.

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