Instead, in the last days of his presidency, “the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections,” Charlie Savage reports in The New York Times. “The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with information gathered by its most powerful operations, which are largely unregulated by wiretapping laws … far more officials will be searching through raw data. Essentially, the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.”
Robert Litt, general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote in defense of the new approach before the Justice Department adopted it:
These procedures will thus not authorize any additional collection of anyone’s communications, but will only provide a framework for the sharing of lawfully collected signals intelligence information between elements of the Intelligence Community. Critically, they will authorize sharing only with elements of the Intelligence Community, and only for authorized foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes; they will not authorize sharing for law enforcement purposes. They will require individual elements of the Intelligence Community to establish a justification for access to signals intelligence consistent with the foreign intelligence or counterintelligence mission of the element. And finally, they will require Intelligence Community elements, as a condition of receiving signals intelligence, to apply to signals intelligence information the kind of strong protections for privacy and civil liberties, and the kind of oversight, that the National Security Agency currently has. In other words, the same kind of protections for individual privacy that exists for signals intelligence today will carry forward when that signals intelligence is shared pursuant to these procedures.
Be that as it may—redactions in the new rules make it impossible to know what exactly lurks within—some data formerly available to one intelligence agency, a limit imposed by government actors who saw value in the former arrangement, is now available to 16 intelligence agencies. That would seem to significantly increase the chance of mischief. Even if 15 of those agencies are filled with patriots who’d never dream of misusing data or metadata gathered on Americans, and who protect that data from being hacked with best practices, one agency might be corrupted by the president, or have poor information security. Bad actors at the top would seem to have more avenues for successful abuse, and innocents at the bottom would seem to have a higher risk of being subject to it. Neither that tradeoff nor any other is mentioned by Litt, suggesting that national-security officials are out to sell this change more than to fully inform the public.