But while the changes may subject more Americans to warrantless surveillance, the last-minute timing of the announcement actually might have been designed to cut future privacy losses. Susan Hennessey, a Brookings fellow and the managing editor of Lawfare, says firming up the changes before Trump takes office makes it harder for the incoming president to encroach even further on civil liberties.
I spoke with Hennessey, who was previously an attorney in the NSA general counsel’s office, about the lasting effects of the new intelligence-sharing procedures. A transcript of our conversation follows, lightly edited for clarity and concision.
Kaveh Waddell: First off, what do these changes mean for the intelligence community? Has a lack of information-sharing among agencies been holding back investigations?
Susan Hennessey: The origin of these changes dates back, honestly, to just after 9/11. There was this identified issue of “stovepiping”: Intelligence wasn’t being shared frequently or fast enough. Some modifications have already been made throughout the years.
Under Executive Order 12333 as it previously existed, NSA analysts had to make an initial determination and apply a set of privacy rules before sharing raw signals-intelligence information with other parts of the intelligence community. After this change, it doesn’t necessarily have to be an NSA analyst that makes that determination—that information can be shared with other parts of the intelligence community.
So it doesn’t change the substantive rules, it doesn’t change the scope of collection, it doesn’t change the types of protection, it doesn’t change the possible uses; it essentially just broadens the group of people who can apply those protections to the raw intelligence.
Waddell: And by extension, it broadens the group of people who get to see raw intelligence, before those rules are applied?
Hennessey: Yes. This is something that has been at the forefront of privacy and civil-liberties advocates’ minds when they’ve expressed concern with this type of collection. But it’s not accurate to say the rule change means it’s a raw signals-intelligence free-for-all, that anybody can get signals intelligence.
Intelligence agencies other than the NSA will have to provide justification for why they need access to that data. It can only be for foreign intelligence, or other enumerated purposes. So it’s not that those agencies will just be able to see whatever they want—it’s that they will be able to request, with particular justifications, access to more raw signals intelligence than they had before. Then, they will need to apply those minimization procedures for themselves.
The civil-liberties concern often surrounds the use of incidentally collected information. Under the new rule, the FBI could not obtain access to or search raw intelligence information for ordinary criminals in an ordinary criminal investigation against a U.S. person. However, if the FBI incidentally seized evidence of a crime, they are allowed to use that information. So that tends to be where the tension is for people who are concerned with the potential impacts that this change could have on U.S. persons.