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ACLU Protest NSA in Washington ARCHIV Oktober 2013
The ACLU is one of many groups opposed to the NSA's spying practicesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

NSA reforms

Antje Passenheim (Washington) / asb
January 10, 2014

US President Barack Obama will soon announce plans for reforming the NSA spy agency. American Civil Liberties Union National Security Fellow, Brett Kaufmann, told DW that he fears the reforms may not go far enough.


DW: Obama's reform plans are based on the advice of a review panel he appointed. What do you think will substantially change when it comes to the work of the foreign intelligence service, NSA?

Brett Kaufman: The most important reform in substance will be the reform of the metadata program, in which the government is collecting records about all the phone calls made and received within the United States. That's what the ACLU is watching most closely and that has been the subject of most of the debate here in the United States.

The President's handpicked review panel recommended that the government get out of the business of collecting all of this information. It said that the government really should not be demanding these call records from telecommunications companies. And that's a really important marker in this debate.

The review group suggested the possibility that a third party might hold the records, or that the telecommunication companies themselves might be forced to retain the records for a certain period of time. We [at the ACLU] think that that kind of system is no solution at all because it raises the same kind of privacy concerns that the government's collection of this information does. So we're watching very closely to see what President Obama recommends.

Portrait Brett Kaufman ACLU Washington
Brett Kaufman works for the ACLU's National Security ProjectImage: privat

Will the planned reform have any consequences for the leadership of the intelligence services, such as the director of US intelligence, James Clapper, who in March 2013 was still denying that the NSA collected data from millions of US citizens?

There hasn't been much talk of Mr. Clapper moving on. But Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, and one of his important colleagues are both retiring in the months ahead. So there will be a discussion of replacing those individuals. And one of the topics that the president's review group addressed was the possibility of splitting the roles that Keith Alexander now holds - which addresses both cyber security as well as the NSA's offensive capacities. There's also discussion of putting a civilian in that role rather than a military officer. Those things were probably good ideas, though it still remains to be seen where the president will come out on those proposals.

After everything that has come to light lately, the review panel has also suggested more restraint in intercepting communications from foreign head of states. But would the NSA reform also offer more privacy protection to ordinary non-US citizens, for instance Europeans?

One of the most important and probably underreported proposals of the review panel was the recommendation that certain privacy protections currently afforded to Americans also be applied abroad.

It's just a fact that the NSA should not be conducting these kinds of bulk surveillance programs on the entire world. And that's exactly what's currently happening. The US government is subjecting the population of the entire world to a mass surveillance regime. And that is in violation of the government's responsibilities under international treaties and international law.

We [the ACLU] sincerely hope that reforms are made that restrict some of these abusive practices - not just in the United States - but around the world.

Lawyer Brett Max Kaufman is a National Security Fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) National Security Project.

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