- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A leading civil liberties group lashed out Wednesday after reports suggested that President Obama won’t make major changes to government surveillance programs after months of review and hand-wringing over revelations by former spy-agency contractor Edward Snowden.

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero accused Mr. Obama of planning to “pass the buck” to Congress for oversight of secret surveillance programs. The president will detail his proposals Friday in a speech at the Justice Department.

“President Obama’s speech on Friday will not only determine the direction of national security policies and programs, but also define his civil liberties legacy,” Mr. Romero said in a statement. “If the speech is anything like what is being reported, the president will go down in history for having retained and defended George W. Bush’s surveillance programs rather than reformed them.”

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Mr. Obama won’t recommend that bulk storage of telephone data be shifted from the National Security Agency to the phone companies themselves, one move that privacy advocates have been seeking. The report said Mr. Obama also won’t require court permission when spy agencies seek business records.

The president reportedly will propose increasing limits on the government’s access to bulk telephone data, call for privacy safeguards for foreigners and propose the creation of a public advocate at a secret intelligence court.

A spokeswoman for the president’s National Security Council would not confirm The Times’ report.

Federal judges this week rejected adding a special public advocate to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, saying in a letter that such a position usually isn’t needed and could gum up the secret court’s proceedings.

The federal judges also said they don’t support making all of their secret rulings public. They said they didn’t think the public would be able to understand the issues at stake, particularly because some of the intelligence matters would have to be redacted.

Mr. Obama’s internal review panel, set up after Mr. Snowden’s revelations, said the president and Congress should make major changes to the program, including forcing the NSA to stop collecting the data and instead leaving it in the hands of the phone companies.

Analysts would have to request the data from the phone companies each time they wanted to check a particular phone number’s records.

“Our judgment was that the government should not have possession of this information, because if it does, there’s always the possibility of someone coming along down the road, seeing this as a great opportunity to get political dirt on individuals — on their activities, their organizations, their associations — and that that’s a danger that we want to avoid,” Geoffrey Stone, a member of the president’s panel, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The panel also said it wanted the government to have to obtain a court order to force businesses to disclose data. That would walk back a part of the Patriot Act that allows the Justice Department to force businesses to disclose data without having a court approve the order, and without alerting the people whose data have been taken.

The FBI has objected, saying that having to wait for a court to act could prove troublesome in an emergency.

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