Obama Will Likely Leave Significant NSA Reforms to Congress

In anticipation of Obama's speech about possible reforms of national surveillance programs on Friday, it seems likely that he'll leave big changes to Congress.

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In anticipation of President Obama's speech about possible reforms of national surveillance programs on Friday, it seems that nobody is quite sure exactly what the President is going to propose. The official White House stance on the matter is that Obama has not completed his consideration of the programs themselves and recommendations from members of Congress and intelligence officials, and while that's probably true, the picture so far does not seem particularly encouraging for proponents of reform.

Update, 8:15 a.m.: Now it appears that we're getting more clarity. According to the Associated Press, White House officials say that the president will "endorse changes to the way the government collects millions of Americans' phone records for possible future surveillance, but he'll leave many of the specific adjustments for Congress to sort out."

According to The New York Times, the president is:

trying to straddle a difficult line in hopes of placating foreign leaders and advocates of civil liberties without a backlash from national security agencies. The result seems to be a speech that leaves in place many current programs, but embraces the spirit of reform and keeps the door open to changes later.

Emphasis added. Translation: a lot will stay the same, but he's thinking about changing some stuff! It's a good thing that when it comes to near-unchecked surveillance powers, not completely rejecting the idea of reforms is enough.

The Times' sources indicate that Obama will limit access to bulk metadata, but not go so far as to leave it in the hands of third-party companies, as well as recommend a public advocate be present at secret court hearings.

The hints at Obama's highly anticipated speech come on the same day that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge John D. Bates wrote a letter to Congress on behalf of the 11 current FISA court judges advocating for keeping the current programs in place. He opposed having a public advocate at hearings as well as making the intelligence court proceedings more transparent, writing, "Releasing freestanding summaries of court opinions is likely to promote confusion and misunderstanding." The judges were also not supportive of an even larger caseload that would be brought on should they be brought in to render judgments on national security letters.

Of course, how heavily each side of the debate will weigh into President Obama's speech is unclear. He will deliver the results of his review at the Justice Department on Friday.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.