President Promises Modest Steps toward Surveillance Transparency


In a widely anticipated speech today, President Obama laid out his position on reforming surveillance activities in the wake of disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Today’s announcements outlined modest steps to better protect privacy and bring greater transparency to the U.S. government’s surveillance activities, but more remains to be done.

It is significant that the administration has engaged so thoroughly with these issues. In our review of the Obama administration’s first term, we noted, “The administration’s most glaring open government shortcomings involve national security secrecy.” The fact is, it was often difficult to get administration officials to even discuss national security secrecy issues. Clearly, that has changed. Although it required extraordinary whistleblowing and ongoing investigative journalism to bring the issue to the fore, the administration is now part of the debate.

However, in order to have an informed debate, the public must have access to all the relevant facts. The scope of U.S. government surveillance activities raise critical constitutional and human rights concerns, and the American people deserve a full accounting.

President Obama pledged welcome steps toward transparency today. However, the announcements included so few details – and so many caveats – that it’s hard to predict how much new information will truly be released. For instance, the president’s speech promised the administration would “annually review for the purposes of declassification any future opinions of the [surveillance] court with broad privacy implications.” But who will decide which opinions have “broad privacy implications?” How many such opinions will actually be released as a result of the reviews? And shouldn’t decisions with “broad privacy implications” be disclosed promptly and proactively, rather than waiting for a once-a-year review?

Moreover, several important components to restoring openness were missing from today’s announcements, including safe channels for whistleblowers to report problems, protections for journalists and their sources who bring issues like this to the public, and full disclosure of the legal authorities underpinning surveillance activities.

We welcome the administration’s efforts to better inform the public about this important issue, but continued effort is needed – from the executive as well as Congress – to bring the transparency and accountability needed.

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