Former high-ranking U.S. intelligence and military officials sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Thursday urging him not to implement proposed changes to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) contested surveillance programs that they say would hinder vital intelligence operations.
The letter said Obama must not make a "knee-jerk reaction" to the roughly 1.7 million classified files released by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, including those that revealed the agency’s "metadata" program that contains billions of pieces of U.S. telephone call data. The metadata consists of phone numbers dialed, call times, and their durations, but not the content or subscriber names.
Obama is expected to embrace on Friday several of the more than 40 recommendations made by his review group, which include moving the phone call database to private companies or third parties and requiring court orders on a case-by-case basis for the NSA to access it.
While the signatories to the letter said the ability to store so-called "big data" is a cutting-edge technology that should be studied, they said the review group’s proposals would hamper the NSA program’s ability to quickly respond to national security threats.
"The review group found no evidence that this program has been abused, but they still want to put enormous restrictions on it because of the potential that it might be abused," said Fred Fleitz, former CIA officer and senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy (CSP), at a press conference announcing the letter. "This could be used to shut down any intelligence program."
Fleitz coauthored a recent CSP report with Clare Lopez, another senior fellow and former CIA officer, that noted the counterterrorism benefits of the metadata program. The president’s review group questioned whether the collection of phone call data—authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act—was necessary to stop terrorist attacks.
"Although the review group report states that the 215 program ‘was not essential to preventing terrorist attacks,’ review group member Michael Morell contradicted this finding just after the report was issued when he said in a Dec. 27, 2013 Washington Post op-ed that if the metadata program had been in place before September 2001, ‘it would likely have prevented 9/11’ and ‘has the potential to prevent the next 9/11,’" the report said.
Fleitz said members of the review group told the Senate Judiciary Committee that they did not consider whether the program could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.
Additionally, the former officials said U.S. intelligence agencies currently face a different type of threat than they did just a decade ago.
For example, Iran is sponsoring and sharing capabilities with non-state actors like Hezbollah that have also worked with al Qaeda and drug traffickers, Lopez said. She called this "threat convergence."
"These adversaries are not just highly educated, very tech savvy, and very sophisticated, but they are interconnected in a way that was not the case 10, 20 years ago," she said.
The officials also took issue with some of the review group’s other recommendations.
One would extend privacy protections to non-U.S. persons and prohibit targeting of them "based solely on that person’s political views or religious convictions." Lopez said the idea was "absurd" and would be "a serious threat in and of itself to American national security" if it prevented U.S. agents from investigating foreigners motivated by Islamic extremism.
Frank Gaffney, former assistant secretary of defense and president and founder of CSP, said transferring the metadata to third parties would create new problems. The data would then be stored on multiple servers in different locations and could be less secure.
"One would think some of the people who are so concerned about the government agencies would be at least concerned about [that]," he said.
Judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, the judicial body that reviews the metadata program along with congressional intelligence committees, also sent a letter to the committees this week saying they were opposed to the proposal that an independent advocate for civil liberties attend their classified hearings. They called it "unnecessary" and "counterproductive."
Any sweeping changes to the NSA program would likely require congressional or court involvement. One bipartisan proposal introduced by lawmakers would essentially end the bulk collection of phone data, while a competing bill would keep it intact but require analysts searching the database to have a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that a phone number is associated with terrorism.
Federal judges have issued contradictory rulings on the constitutionality of the program.