New rules for spooks
Obama’s plan for restraining his spies is balanced but vague BEFORE committing mass murder, one of
the 9/11 hijackers made a call from San Diego to an al-Qaeda safe house in
Yemen. At the time, the National Security Agency (NSA) had no way to tell that
the call had come from America. Haunted by such lapses, successive governments
have doubled the budget for intelligence in real terms since 2001, to $75
billion in 2012. At its peak, around three years ago, America was spending
nearly twice as much on intelligence as it had during the cold war. Rather than
write new laws to govern the use of this bounty, Congress relied largely on old
ones, drawn up when the internet was an obscure government project.
In a long, professorial and rather
good speech on January 17th, Barack Obama surveyed the past 250 years of
spying, paused to praise the employees of the NSA, who must be fed up with
being compared to the Stasi, and then suggested what new rules ought to look
like. As yet the proposals are a bit vague and some will be hard to implement,
but the speech was an unusually open primer on how America should spy.
last time revelations in the press prompted a public debate about spying, it
followed disclosures that the CIA had tried to assassinate political leaders in
Africa and Latin America and that the FBI had snooped on Martin Luther King.
Edward Snowden, the security-contractor-turned-leaker who fled from Hawaii with
a huge stash of secret data in May 2013, has not revealed anything so shocking.
Still, it makes sense for Congress to update constraints placed on
intelligence-gathering that were drawn up in the disco era.
The argument over spying on Americans
at home has revolved around the exposure of a programme to collect telephone
metadata (the records of who called whom and when, though not what they said).
Though the bulk collection of metadata was authorised under the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and then bolstered by the Patriot Act of
2001, judges differ as to whether the programme is constitutional. Mr Obama
claimed that a public discussion about domestic spying would have taken place
without Mr Snowden’s intervention. That is doubtful: without the leaks there
would have been nothing much for the public to discuss. This is Mr Snowden’s
strongest claim to be treated as a whistleblower.
The president vowed to end “the
programme as it currently exists”, which means he would keep it in a modified
form. At the moment the NSA sucks up the data and stores them in facilities
like the one it has just built in Utah for around $1.5 billion. The most likely
reform is for the government to pay private firms to store the data, just as it
already pays some phone companies to turn on wiretaps.
His second proposal on domestic
surveillance is to change the way National Security Letters operate. This legal
instrument, which also dates from the late 1970s, allows domestic spooks to
extract information about an individual from a company and prevents the company
from disclosing the order to the target. At the moment such orders are kept
secret indefinitely. The president proposes to end that.
When spying on people outside
America, the president announced that the intelligence services will listen to
the phones of friends and allies only when there is a compelling
national-security reason for doing so, rather than just because they can.
America is not explicit about who its friends and allies are, so this pledge
may lead to “some nervous glances around the table at the next NATO summit”,
says one diplomat. But it has been welcomed by European allies, some of whom
privately admit that there is a good deal of hypocrisy in the criticism of
America’s spooks by allies, since their own spies do similar things, and even a
smattering of jealousy, as America’s are better at it.
Mr Obama stressed that America does
not spy for commercial reasons. He said that the leaks have revealed “methods
to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not
fully understand for years to come.” If so, that strengthens the argument that
Mr Snowden should be treated as a traitor.
Americans do not mind if their
government spies on foreigners, polls suggest. Many don’t mind if it collects
data on Americans either. Research by the Pew Centre shows support for the
NSA’s surveillance has dipped to its lowest level since the question was first
asked: 53% disapprove; 40% approve. When there is a Democrat in the White
House, Democrats are much keener to support what America’s spies are doing, while
Republicans become more suspicious; and vice versa. With public trust is so
fickle, the intelligence services require an updated set of rules. Alas, a
Congress facing mid-term elections this year may not be able to agree on what
those rules should say. The Economist
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