Obama Seeks Immunity for Telecom Companies in NSA Data Sweeps

The Obama White House is seeking immunity for telecommunications companies that have complied with government orders to hand over customers’ data. However, there may be more than meets the eye with the president’s proposed reform.

In a statement to legislators recently, the White House said it would support legislation that protects “‘any person who complies in good faith with an order to produce records’ from legal liability for complying with court orders for phone records to the government once the NSA no longer collects the data in bulk.”

This statement also comes after it was revealed that a federal district court judge rejected a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NSA’s metadata collection.

After the revelations of NSA leaker Edward Snowden became public almost one year ago, President Obama has been making gestures about reforming the NSA and data collection. After authorizing the program to collect metadata every year, he has since moved to leave data in the hands of the companies.

In a New York Times report from this past weekend:

“Under Mr. Obama’s plan, if it becomes law, the NSA would have to leave that data in private hands, but when the NSA does get it, under court order, the agency should have access to a lot more than it does today.”

“All told, if you are an NSA analyst, you will probably get more of what you wanted to see, even if it’s more cumbersome,” an anonymous intelligence official commented in the Times story

As independent journalist Marcy Wheeler explains, these are not true reforms. Rather, she says, the government is “trying a new plan, by outsourcing to to the providers.”

The reforms suggested by the president have drawn criticisms from those on both sides of the surveillance issue.

U.S. Reps. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, and C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, introduced a bill in late March to reform data collection. When their bill was introduced, they said there needed to be a “reasonable and articulable suspicion that an individual phone number is associated with terrorism” before ordering telecommunications companies to hand over information.

The Rogers-Ruppersberger bill only requires a court order after taking this action, not before. Their bill currently has 13 cosponsors.

Should other efforts at reform fail, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash may attempt action himself. Amash recently indicated that he may attach an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a defense spending bill, to defund the NSA’s data collection program.

Amash also told the UK Guardian:

“If leadership on both sides decide that they want to push through pseudo-reforms through the NDAA or through another piece of legislation, then we’re certainly prepared to offer an amendment like we offered before to any piece of legislation that requires it.”

The Michigan Republican’s attempt to accomplish this last summer fell about a dozen votes short.

When he was running for president in 2008, then-U.S. Senator Obama opposed legal immunity for telecom companies that complied with domestic spying. After he secured the Democratic nomination that summer, however, he switched his support to the position of the George W. Bush administration — much to the consternation of his supporters. Much like that position switch, President Obama appears to be keeping previous policies in place while reshuffling the agencies and companies that handle it.

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