Lawmakers Spurn Obama Bid to Preserve NSA Data Gathering

The Obama administration is considering steps to quiet the uproar over U.S. spy programs, including curbs on foreign surveillance while allowing the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records to continue.

White House officials also are looking at separating the agencies in charge of intelligence gathering and cyberwar policy to take so much power out of the hands of one general.

The ideas don’t go far enough to satisfy U.S. lawmakers looking to rein in the National Security Agency who said yesterday the changes would do more to limit spying on foreign leaders than to limit collecting data on U.S. citizens.

“It is so striking that they want to deal with the issue of foreigners when at every town hall meeting I go to people stand up and say why are Americans being asked to give up their individual liberties for the appearance of security,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and leading critic of the phone records collection, said in an interview.

President Barack Obama’s administration is making proposals to appease the nay-sayers. One possible step being contemplated would separate the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, which has the ability to carry out offensive cyber-attacks and protect U.S. networks, from the NSA, which collects intelligence, according to U.S. defense and intelligence officials who requested anonymity to discuss White House deliberations.

Right now, both agencies are headed by Army General Keith Alexander, who’s announced he’s resigning in March -- and some ex-military leaders say that’s too much power for one person.

‘Different Missions’

James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has said the arrangement is not as beneficial as it was when it began.

“Not only do the organizations have starkly different cultures, their missions are vastly different, even contradictory,” Stavridis wrote in an article with Dave Weinstein, a strategic planner at Cyber Command, for Foreign Affairs magazine.

Intelligence collection is often at odds with military operations, such as when a fighter pilot targets a building for destruction and kills a human intelligence source in the process, Stavridis said. Those distinct operations deserve separate leaders who can advocate for their interests, he said in the article.

One retired military and intelligence official, though, argues that NSA and the Cyber Command should remain unified and be a standalone operation similar to the U.S. Central Command, which directs all military activity in the Middle East.

No Alternative

A second retired official with experience in intelligence and combat agreed, arguing that the combined command can react faster and more precisely to new threats, especially to U.S. forces in the field.

The thrust of the possible changes to the programs would be to leave intact the bulk collection of phone records of millions of Americans by offering changes to foreign spying.

Administration officials have privately informed lawmakers that it sees no alternative to having the NSA collect bulk phone records and intercept the communications of Americans. Meanwhile, Alexander and other top administration officials have said publicly they’re open to changing spying abroad.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said even with complaints from critics, the administration controls intelligence operations and “it’s within their power to make agreements with nations,” indicating that Congress could do little to dictate conditions of those accords.

Global Backlash

The administration is fighting a global backlash over revelations that the NSA spied on foreign leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hacked into fiber-optic cables to get data from Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., and intercepted communications of Americans without warrants. Most of the spying was exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who remains in Russia under temporary asylum.

White House spokesman Jay Carney yesterday confirmed a New York Times report that the White House is considering limits on foreign spying. Meanwhile, the administration has concluded there isn’t a workable alternative to NSA programs collecting the data of Americans, according to Darren Dick, staff director for the House intelligence committee.

“They’ve taken a look at different ways of conducting these programs and really can’t find a solution, a workable solution, that gives the same counterterrorism efficacy to the construct other than the one that they have right now,” Dick said at a conference yesterday in Washington.

‘Get Real’

Dick said the administration briefed the committee on the review, which looked at possible alternatives under sections 215 and 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The Obama administration “needs to get real” and accept that limitations will be put on the NSA’s ability to collect data on innocent Americans, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview.

“I don’t have faith in the NSA handling the powers they do have when they weren’t smart enough to keep a 29-year-old from walking off with some of their secrets,” Leahy said, referring to Snowden.

A coalition of lawmakers, technology companies and voters is willing to fight “a long battle” against the administration to end spying on U.S. citizens, Wyden said.

“We see the tech community mobilized dramatically here in the last couple of weeks,” Wyden said. “We’re starting to build on the NSA reform issue the same sort of coalition that we built on a number of other issues relating to particularly technology and the Internet.”

Google, Apple

Google, Yahoo, Apple Inc. and other technology companies have lobbied Congress and the administration to be able to publish statistics about how they respond to government orders for customer data.

The idea of reducing “the amount of surveillance we do on foreigners but we’re going to continue the surveillance that’s under way on Americans seems to have it somewhat backward,” Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, said in an interview.

Udall said there could be limitations placed on spying both domestically and abroad. Leahy, Wyden and Udall have introduced bills that would prohibit the NSA from collecting bulk phone records and give technology companies permission to reveal data about government demands.

Feinstein’s committee yesterday approved an authorization measure for U.S. intelligence programs for fiscal year 2014 that seeks to thwart leaks of classified information and strengthen oversight of surveillance activities.

Too Late

The administration’s position that it has no workable alternatives to NSA surveillance will undermine attempts to appease allies and damage U.S. interests, said Jason Healey, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Administration proposals to rein in spying programs are coming too late to reverse what Healey called deep and long-term damage to U.S. interests. They probably won’t sway foreign leaders either, he said in a phone interview.

“These are dumb, short-term security decisions, they’re not done with the longer term in mind,” Healey said.

What’s needed is not the “rounding down” approach to modifying the surveillance programs, Healey said, but a bottom-up review of what surveillance activities are truly required.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE