Reforms must include independent oversight with unrestricted access to all intelligence databases, say whistleblowers
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: On January 17, President Obama delivered a speech to address the surveillance programs of the National Security Agency, or NSA.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: As a senator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.
Through a combination of action by the courts, increased congressional oversight, and adjustments by the previous administration, some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I took office.
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DESVARIEUX: But according to NSA whistleblowers, these NSA abuses still go on, and the president’s proposals to reform the programs don’t go far enough.
KIRK WIEBE, NSA WHISTLEBLOWER: Here we have an agency that is used to cheating. Unfortunately, then, when someone poses fixes that our policy or law, briefings, reports, yearly reviews, all of that to me is fluff.
The only way anyone will ever again get the truth about what NSA is really doing is if a specially trained group of IT people, techies, geeks, hackers, call them what you want, identify a group that wants to do this, a group that’s never been in the intelligence community, hire them, give them computers and network access and the clearances to delve into NSA’s databases–and I’m talking about all of the databases that it uses to do its thing–and verify that data is not being collected that shouldn’t be, that data is not being looked at that should be, that data is not being given to people to whom it should not be given. Until we have that kind of oversight, the cheating that’s gone on for 41 years of its existence is going to happen again and again and again.
DESVARIEUX: President Obama addressed the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215.
OBAMA: This program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the names of people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of calls–metadata that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.
WIEBE: The president used the word, quote, “reasonable suspicion”–the words. This is dangerous. For the life of the nation, we have always interpreted the key clause in the Fourth Amendment guaranteeing your right to privacy to be based on probable cause. Without probable cause, no one has the right to go through your personal effects–papers, things, stuff. They have no right.
DESVARIEUX: The president also made recommendations of how to oversee regulation.
OBAMA: We will appoint a senior official at the White House to implement the new privacy safeguards that I have announced today. I will devote the resources to centralize and improve the process we use to handle foreign requests for legal assistance, keeping our high standards for privacy while helping foreign partners fight crime and terrorism.
RUSS TICE, NSA WHISTLEBLOWER: When the president says he’s going to, you know, put these people, he’s going to have somebody in the White House who’s going to be a SIGINT representative, who is this person? Is it going to be a shill of the White House? Is it going to be a rep from the intelligence community? Is this person really going to be objective in what they do? The oversight board that they’ve just set up, if you look at the people involved in that board, you’ll see that those people are not objective, that they all have stakes in the intelligence community.
DESVARIEUX: NSA whistleblower Bill Binney says the collection of metadata is not necessary if you want to go after suspected terrorists.
WILLIAM BINNEY, NSA WHISTLEBLOWER: So if you do the targeted acquisition, you’ll have all the information that’s relevant to foreign threats or international crime, and you won’t have to be doing bulk collection or having data that would be penetrated by the FBI or anybody else that would look at it that’s not supposed to be there. You would be doing a legitimate acquisition of information of targets that posed a threat.
DESVARIEUX: The president did make one notable reform, which would be to pursue phone calls two degrees removed from suspects.
OBAMA: Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of the current three. And I have directed the attorney general to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.
BINNEY: He did pick up some of our suggestions, a two-degree approach, focusing on that, but you’re still maintaining the bulk collection. If you do that two degrees, one of the principal–one of the parts of it, to do the targeted approach, then you don’t need to collect the bulk. You don’t need the rest of that; you don’t need to maintain those large databases to store all this material, you don’t have to hire all those contractors to manage it, and it saves you a lot of money and effort in the long run.
But the other thing also that I thought he should go for–and we will make this recommendation again–is he needs to include into this process privacy protections for U.S. citizens if they are pulled into this database, even in the targeted approach. And you do that by encrypting all of their attributes so you can’t tell who they are, so that the FBI or CIA or any DEA or any law enforcement agency can’t come into that database and go after individuals.
DESVARIEUX: President Obama also addressed the issue of spying on foreign leaders.
OBAMA: Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments–as opposed to ordinary citizens–around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does.
WIEBE: The president said, no more spying on foreign leaders. And yet at some point, if you remember, he said, we reserve the right to look at all nations’ intentions. You know, what’s “intentions”? Does that include foreign leaders? So there’s some clarity that has to be sought on that specific issue.
DESVARIEUX: The whistleblowers called for a means to independently verify that Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are being protected.
BINNEY: Have a hacker set of people type, technology people to be able to penetrate every network, every database, and every transaction, look at all the programs and everything they’re doing internally inside NSA. That way you could verify everything that they have, everything that they do, and everything that they say.
DESVARIEUX: The whistleblowers also pointed to what was not mentioned in the president’s speech. The Guardian recently reported that the NSA collects 200 million text messages a day in untargeted global sweep,–
WIEBE: That’s content, folks. That’s not metadata. It was never mentioned. And the White House knew about it, had to have.
DESVARIEUX: –a point that President Obama did not mention in his speech.
For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.