with assistance from Rainey Reitman.

A year ago, President Obama made tepid promises to reform the NSA (check out our analysis of those commitments). Today, he followed up with more specifics.

What do you need to know? His reform plan:

  • Fails to fix the problem of unconstitutional National Security Letters The President’s reform proposes a three-year limit on the gag order that accompanies each NSL, but even a three-year limit fails to cure the constitutional problem. Only a prompt and fully considered decision by a judge that a provider should remain gagged is sufficient.  
  • Doesn’t stop the bulk collection of data on innocent Americans’ digital communications If the Intelligence Community was serious about protecting privacy, it could end the bulk collection of Americans’ communications data—under Section 215 of the Patriot Act or under any provision of law—tomorrow. The President’s proposals do not curb the mass collection of phone records under Section 215, and the proposals affirmatively allow bulk collection to occur for six, broadly defined categories of intelligence collection. 
  • Continues "backdoor" surveillance on Americans without a warrant
    When the intelligence community performs surveillance under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, it sweeps in the communications of millions of Americans without a warrant. The President’s Review Group recommended the government obtain a warrant before it searched for communications of US persons contained within its vast database. The President rejected that proposal.
  • Fails to provide non-US persons with the same privacy protections afforded US persons On a daily basis, the United States intelligence community collects vast amounts of information about millions of people around the world. While the President’s proposals take a step forward in unifying the retention requirements applicable to collected non-US person information, they fail to afford the same privacy protections afforded US persons, and they fail to rein in bulk collection in the first place.    

President Obama still has time in office to make this right, and he’s got ample power to rein in NSA overreach without Congress lifting a finger. But if he continues to offer these weak reforms, then he should be prepared for a major Congressional battle when sections of the Patriot Act come up for reauthorization in June. 

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