(CBS) The Obama administration on Friday announced it’s taking a series of steps to make National Security Agency programs more transparent, explaining not only how the programs operate but also releasing the Justice Department’s legal rationale for the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone records. The administration also plans to back various reforms to the programs so they’re subject to more oversight.
The move toward greater transparency starts Friday, with the release of a brief NSA document describing the authorities the NSA has under various laws like the Patriot Act, as well as the means and methods used to exercise that authority, and controls used to hold the NSA accountable for its actions. The document is meant to provide “a foundation from which we can build out broader transparency measures,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday.
Administration officials have noted that President Obama called for greater accountability in national security programs before Snowden, a former government contractor, leaked information about NSA programs. These steps, however, are in direct response to the outcry Snowden’s leaks created.
“Frankly, I think what we’ve seen so far is… elements of a blueprint of NSA programs but not the operating manual,” one senior administration official said. “What we’re trying to do is describe the operating manual.”
Without the proper context for the programs that Snowden revealed, the official said, “you quickly come to extrapolations that are not appropriate and often sensationalized.”
Also on Friday, the Justice Department is releasing the legal rationale for the sweeping collection of U.S. phone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act — months after lawmakers like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the authors of the Patriot Act called on the Justice Department to do so.
“It’s not easy to make that information public without giving it a careful scrub,” a senior administration official explained.
Section 215 has come under intense scrutiny since Snowden exposed the NSA’s phone records collection program in early June. Last month — after the most heated debate over balancing national security and civil liberties that Congress has had in years — the House narrowly rejected a bill that would’ve stripped the NSA of its assumed authority under the Patriot Act to collect records in bulk.
The White House opposed that measure, calling it a “blunt approach” to the privacy concerns raised by the NSA programs, but senior administration officials said Friday the White House is working with Congress to reform the Section 215 program, as well as to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that authorizes such intelligence gathering activities.
Mr. Obama directed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to work with Attorney General Eric Holder and other intelligence agencies to recommend potential modifications to the program, the administration said. “The president does believe given the scale of the program… there are understandable concerns about the potential for abuse,” an official said.
The administration is also backing the proposal, already introduced in Congress add a special advocate to the FISC to argue on behalf of civil liberties concerns. Unlike any other court system in the U.S., the FISC (the secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to provide oversight of the government’s intelligence gathering) only hears one side of an argument — the government’s.
Administration officials called it a “very important reform and one that needs to be done in consultation with Congress.”
To make intelligence gathering programs even more transparent, the administration announced it’s assembling a task force of people from outside the government to consider the government’s surveillance efforts and the protection of privacy. It will also consider how the United States’ foreign policy is impacted by its surveillance efforts.
The group, which will assemble in the coming days, will “bring a variety of experience to bear,” an administration official said, and includes members of the intelligence business community and civil liberties advocates. It will provide an interim report in 60 days and a final report on its conclusions by the end of the year.
To further engage the public in this discussion, the administration next week plans to launch a website that will provide more details about how the intelligence community works. An administration official said it should serve as a “hub for further transparency.”