The NSA Surveillance Program: 2014 Developments

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

An update on the NSA surveillance program

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

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The National Security Agency's surveillance program, leaked to the media in 2013 by Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, continued to make headlines—and raise eyebrows—in 2014. As details about the program continued to trickle out, both President Barack Obama and members of Congress proposed several reforms to it.

Obama Responds to Panel's Recommendations

Obama commissioned an advisory panel in 2013 in response to the uproar and diplomatic headaches that resulted from the Snowden leaks. The panel's report, released in December 2013, recommended 46 changes to the NSA's surveillance program. The recommendations included: handing authority of metadata gleaned from surveillance to a third party; requiring that NSA analysts obtain a court order before accessing the data; requiring that the government obtain a court order before issuing national security letters, which force businesses to hand over private customer information; banning the government from using "back door" methods to gain access to hardware or software; and that an advocate should argue in favor of civil liberties in cases that come before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Currently, these cases are heard in private and only the government presents a case. The report also said the NSA's surveillance program has not been "essential to preventing attacks." The latter statement contradicted an earlier assertion by NSA Director Keith Alexander, who told the House Intelligence Committee that the surveillance programs have prevented more than 50 "potential terrorist events" since 2001.

On Jan. 17, 2014, President Obama suggested reforms to the country's surveillance program based on the panel's recommendations. He said that while he believed the activities of the NSA were legal, he acknowledged that some compromised civil liberties. "Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power," Obama said. "It depends on the law to constrain those in power." He asked the Justice Department and the heads of the intelligence agencies to develop a plan by March 28.

The reforms he outlined include: requiring NSA analysts to get a court order to access phone data unless in cases of emergencies; an intention to eventually end to the collection of massive amounts of metadata by the government; the NSA will stop eavesdropping on leaders of allied nations; officials can pursue a phone number linked to a terrorist association by two calls (or "hops") rather than three; and Congress will appoint advocates to argue on the side of civil liberties before the FISA court.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency, also released a report in January that was highly critical of the NSA's collection of massive amounts of phone call records. It echoed many of the concerns of the panel assembled by President Obama, but went further, saying the NSA program is likely both illegal and unconstitutional and has not proven to be effective in fighting terrorism. The report recommended the collection of the meta data be shut down.

The report said the program, "lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act], implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value."

On March 25, Obama introduced an NSA reform plan, developed by the Justice Department and intelligence agencies, that will be presented to Congress for approval. The plan reflected many of the proposals he made in January. He went further, however, saying the NSA would no longer collect phone data from Americans. Instead, the phone companies would collect and store that information for 18 months, as it currently does, and make it available in a standard format. The phone companies would also have to provide the records of callers two hops away from the suspect. The NSA would have to seek a court order to access the phone records. Obama could end the surveillance program altogether by declining to seek its renewal. However, he said he would ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew for 90 days with the expectation that reforms would move forward.

In May, the House passed the USA Freedom Act, which limits the scope of the government's ability to collect bulk amounts of phone and Internet data; keeps the records in the hands of phone companies for up to 18 months; allows officials to pursue a phone number linked to a terrorist association by two calls rather than three; and calls on the government to disclose why it needs the records and how they will be used. A vote in the Senate, however, was blocked in November.

Double Standard and Strange Bedfellows

Reaction to the leaks about the controversial program revealed some double standards—and alliances. Conservatives widely supported the NSA's program as a necessary weapon in the war on terror when it was introduced by President George Bush, while many Democrats accused the Bush administration of over-stepping its authority and trampling on civil liberties. A dozen years later with a Democrat in the White House, opinions were largely reversed, though many Democrats were reserved in their defense of the surveillance program.

However, opinion about the program was certainly not black and white, and it had critics and supporters on both sides of the aisle. Some liberals and libertarians were united in their condemnation of it (the ACLU and Rand Paul both filed lawsuits against it), and prominent Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), spoke out in defense of the surveillance program. In an editorial in USA Today in October 2013, she said the program has been "effective in helping to prevent terrorist plots against the US and our allies." She also said the "call-records program is not surveillance. It does not collect the content of any communication, nor do the records include names or locations. The NSA only collects the type of information found on a telephone bill: phone numbers of calls placed and received, the time of the calls and duration."

Major 2014 Revelations about the Surveillance Program

Here's a look at some of the controversial aspects of the NSA's surveillance program made public by Snowden that received headlines in 2014.

  • According to the Guardian, the NSA collected and stored as many as 200 million SMS text messages a day through a program called Dishfire.
  • The Washington Post reported in March that the NSA developed the techonology to record every single call made in a foreign nation and review those calls for a month after they were made. The program, called Mystic, was deployed in 2009.
  • The NSA hacked into the computer servers of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, the New York Times and Der Spiegel reported in March. U.S. officials had banned the company from dealings in the U.S., fearing it would use "back doors" to infiltrate business and government networks and steal information. One of the goals of the program, called "Shotgiant," was to hack into the computer networks of other countries that bought Huawei's products.
by Beth Rowen
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