[JURIST] In a speech [transcript] Friday, US President Barack Obama [official website] announced detailed plans to change surveillance policy, curbing the abilities of intelligence agencies to collect and use American phone data. Reform to the program entails a handful of initiatives outlined by Obama, focusing on additional oversight, transparency, and restrictions on government’s ability to use the collected data, such as the use of incidentally collected information in criminal trials. Obama touched on the infamous and highly-controversial mass collection practices, stating, “I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata.” Republican response [WP report] to the president’s remarks were tepid, with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) calling proposed reform “the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration” while Senator John McCain (R-AZ) put the onus of responsibility on Congress to improve how it executes its constitutional oversight duties.
The revelations surrounding NSA surveillance programs [JURIST backgrounder] have sparked worldwide debate and controversy. Earlier this month the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an appeal to a federal district court ruling that held that the NSA program is likely unconstitutional [JURIST reports]. In September the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court released [JURIST report] a previously classified opinion [text, PDF] explaining why a NSA program to keep records of Americans’ phone calls is constitutional. Also in September the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] urged the Obama administration [JURIST report] to curb the FBI’s surveillance powers. In August the Council of Europe [official website] expressed concern [JURIST report] over the UK reaction to the exposure of the US surveillance program. Lawmakers have also called for a criminal investigation into the activities of Edward Snowden, who came forward in early June as the whistleblower in the NSA surveillance scandal [JURIST podcast]. JURIST Guest Columnist Christina Wells argues that the broad provisions of the Espionage Act [text], under which Snowden is charged, raise significant First Amendment concerns [JURIST op-ed].