Scrutinizing surveillance

President Barack Obama on Friday announced a series of proposals designed, he said, to improve transparency and restore the public’s trust in the nation’s surveillance programs aimed at thwarting terrorism.

Obama’s proposals have merit, and we hope he follows through on his plan to work with Congress to implement them. But still more needs to be done, such as the reforms introduced by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

Certainly, changes are needed to convince American citizens they are not being spied upon by their own government. Recent polls show a declining trust in the government in that regard, ever since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to news organizations this spring.

Furthermore, Obama faces a steep challenge in reversing that trend because the news about surveillance and American privacy rights continues to get worse.

Just hours before Obama spoke, the BBC reported two U.S. companies that provide secure email services were suspending services because, they said, they could no longer guarantee email traffic was secure from government snooping.

The head of one of those services, called Lavabit, posted on the company’s website, “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting Lavabit,” the BBC reported.

Lavabit has been under government scrutiny because Snowden reportedly used it to send messages while he was staying in the Moscow airport.

Obama’s announcement also came just a day after The New York Times published a lengthy article claiming the NSA now searches the content of all email sent between the United States and foreign countries, regardless of whether there is any clear connection to terrorism.

An NSA spokeswoman told the Times that the content gathering was allowed under a 2008 law and was directed at foreign operatives, not American citizens. But she did not dispute the article’s central claim: If you’re an American citizen and send or receive emails from foreign countries, there’s a very good chance your email will be read by NSA operatives.

Obama’s plans, as announced Friday, include adding an adversarial voice promoting privacy rights to proceedings before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Currently, law enforcement and intelligence officials are the only ones present at these proceedings, and the court rarely rejects their proposals for surveillance.

Obama also said he wants to make more restrictive a provision of the Patriot Act that allows the government to obtain business phone data records. And he said he will create a panel made up of former intelligence officials and civil liberty and privacy advocates to assess current surveillance programs and make recommendations about them by the end of the year.

All these are valuable efforts and important steps toward making U.S. intelligence gathering more constitutionally acceptable. Too bad it required leaks from a man who is now a fugitive in Russia to prompt such action.


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