Analysis: NSA Bill Barely Touches the Agency’s Vast Powers

The surveillance law enacted this [past] week stands as the most significant curb on the government's investigative authorities since the 1970s. But it's practically inconsequential in the universe of the National Security Agency's vast digital spying operations, a technical overhaul of a marginal counterterrorism program that some NSA officials wanted to jettison anyway.

After a six-month transition, the new law will end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, moving instead to a system of case-by-case searches of records held by phone companies.

The existence of the program, in place since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was perhaps the most startling secret revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, because it so directly affected the privacy of Americans. It was the first Snowden disclosure published by the journalists with whom he shared documents, and it landed with a thunderclap.

But in the two years since Snowden took up exile in Russia to avoid prosecution in the U.S., his documents have fueled dozens of revelations of NSA surveillance operations, disclosing how the agency seeks to exploit Internet communications. None of those programs are affected by the law President Barack Obama signed Tuesday night.

"It's being talked about like it's the Declaration of Independence or something," said Robert Deitz, a former NSA lawyer. "These adjustments are marginal."

Most of the Snowden disclosures have shed light on the NSA's basic mission of gathering foreign "signals intelligence," but the way the agency does its job in the Internet age by necessity involves exploiting weaknesses in the same technology the rest of us use. And it also means the NSA "inadvertently" collects the content of a lot of American communications. Exactly how much is unknown and perhaps unknowable. But the government is allowed under certain circumstances to search that data, none of which was obtained with...

Comments are closed.