Below is my column in USA Today on the NSA proposed reforms. I do believe that there are many worthy suggestions among the 46 recommendations, particularly the amending of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. However, what is missing is any true reform in ending this massive surveillance program since the White House panel started with the presumption that it was lawful. What remains are interesting but largely collateral changes. This includes a worthy proposal of adding an advocate to the FISA secret court. However, the panel does not (as with the program itself) seriously consider the need or the questionable legality of the secret court. Indeed, by tinkering around the edges of the program, the task force would effectively legitimize the program for the future. It will become the new normal in the President’s vision of a surveillance-friendly model of privacy.
The task force does call for serious changes in clearance rules however to avoid future disclosures of the abuses revealed by Edward Snowden. What is lacking is one measure that would go far in showing good faith by this President after years of rolling back on privacy: a pardon for Edward Snowden. Such pardons are not given because the subject is innocent or that a president agrees with his actions. They are granted in the totality of circumstances that mitigate the crime, including the disclosure of abuses that were long ignored, if not supported, by both the White House and Congress. A pardon can be legitimately conditioned on certain measures such as the return of undisclosed documents (which is a massive amount of files) and the signing of a non-disclosure agreement to allow prosecution for future disclosures. That would prevent further damage with disclosures, as suggested by at least on ranking intelligence official. I do not take violations of classification laws lightly and I understand the anger of many officials. However, the current standoff is not just undermining the credibility of the Administration but also doing little to limit further damage. I do not believe that Snowden is using the document to force such a pardon which remains unlikely. However, it is time to consider it. Despite the President’s understandable opposition to his method for raising the abuses, the Snowden disclosures have caused a comprehensive and international reexamination of surveillance rules, including new international measures to protect privacy. Perhaps it may be time to stop hunting the man and focus exclusively on the abuses that he disclosed. The column below is unfortunately limited in space, but it tries to raise some of these issues.
With the release of the recommendations of President Obama’s review board on the NSA phone-record surveillance program, it is easy to feel like that Trojan looking down at a magnificent wooden horse outside the city gates and warning his fellow citizens to “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” The same can be said of federal task forces bearing “reforms.”
On closer examination, the 46 recommendations of the task force are largely cosmetic and administrative changes that notably keep one thing: the program itself. Under the “reforms,” the massive gathering of hundreds of millions of communications records by the National Security Agency could continue. Meanwhile, the administration is still hunting Edward Snowden, the government contractor responsible for disclosing these abuses.
In other words, we want reforms so long as we can punish the man who forced us into reforms.
Task force Tylenol
In Washington, task forces work like Tylenol: they reduce the symptoms of scandal while leaving the cause untouched. The task force was always expected to suggest changes, given both domestic criticism and the outcry from some of our closest allies. But the task force was also expected to assume that the president has inherent authority to legally capture records of calls and e-mails without a warrant.
That is a view not shared by a conservative judge this week in Washington. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon found that the surveillance program was flagrantly unconstitutional and questioned not just the legality but also the efficacy of the massive surveillance program.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of … analyzing it without judicial approval,” he wrote.
Leon correctly observed that the Framers would have been “aghast” by the evasion of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against warrantless searches and seizures.
By starting with the view that the program is lawful, the task force recommended many changes that require little more than moving boxes on organizational charts and ordering new letterhead. Among other things, it suggested that the “metadata” be simply housed with the telecommunications companies rather than the NSA. There are many worthy proposals, though most involve discretionary limits that would be imposed by the President (limits that would remain discretionary).
It suggested that the NSA be placed under civilian control and that a key office be moved outside of the agency. It also recommended that the agencies tighten security clearances — presumably to avoid another Snowden.
That last proposal clearly resonates with the White House, which has worked hard to manage the scandal more than to reform the program. From the outset, the creation of the two task forces (one on surveillance and one on privacy) was met by skepticism by the civil liberties community.
Fox in the henhouse
On this task force, the president picked Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director under Obama (who served during the alleged abuses); Richard Clarke, the Bush U.S. counterterrorism chief; Peter Swire, a former Obama economic and privacy official; Cass Sunstein, a former White House regulatory official who has publicly supported draconian national security measures; and Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor. While Stone and Swire were viewed as more protective of privacy, it was a board that seemed to guarantee incremental rather than sweeping changes.
This effort was further undermined when Obama ordered the involvement of his national intelligence chief John Clapper, who had just admitted publicly that he lied before Congress to conceal the scope of this very program. Of course, Clapper was never investigated, let alone prosecuted, for the crime of lying to Congress. Instead, Obama has called for the pursuit and punishment of Snowden, who disclosed the abuses Clapper lied about.
This week, former CIA director James Woolsey (who was not part of this task force) went as far as to call for Snowden to be “hanged by his neck until he is dead.” Simultaneously offering reforms and the rope can send a curiously conflicted message.
A federal judge has now ruled that what the president was doing was unlawful. Congress and the White House now agree that abuses occurred and reforms are needed. Before the White House implements reforms to prevent the next Snowden, it is time to deal with the current one.
There is one concrete way for the president to demonstrate good faith in dealing with the reforms: Pardon Edward Snowden.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.