If you watched Obama’s speech on the matter or read the transcript, you might be a little confused on the specifics. Brian Fung has parsed it out and translated it into plain English. One of the things that Fung doesn’t cover is this bit from the speech:
And given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations; I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.
While I understand what the President is saying, I don’t think these reforms would have happened without Snowden’s disclosures. There is an extremely trepidatious line to walk between the secrecy an intelligence organization requires to operate effectively and the ability for that secrecy to exist and be trusted in a democracy.
On a more positive note, the reforms of the phone metadata database are much warranted:
Until now, intelligence analysts have been able to “query” the database so long as they’ve determined a given phone number is subject to “reasonable, articulable suspicion.” Critics have said that gives the NSA too much power to snoop on people. So Obama is going to require that whenever an analyst wants to query the database, they’ll have to get permission from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court first.
I’ve said this before, but it is critical to understand the differences in the way warrants work for telephone taps and the way they work for this database. For a phone tap, the intelligence organization needs to establish enough evidence to go to a court and request a warrant. Only after that request is approved do they have the authority to tap the phone.
Under this metadata database, all information is vacuumed up, and the warrant is required to look at the information. That’s too far-reaching, and too susceptible to abuse. This, and the ban on wiretapping allies, are important reforms.