WASHINGTON — As President Obama prepares to deliver a major speech on government surveillance Friday, privacy and civil liberty advocates say they are bracing for disappointment.
The speech, which will take place at the Justice Department, has been framed by the White House as Obama's most significant response to calls to scale back government snooping in the aftermath of leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Advocates calling for Obama to rein in the NSA say they have low expectations amid signals that Obama won't call for ending the NSA's bulk data collection program, which tracks information on nearly every telephone call made and received in the USA.
"It's a travesty," says Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's liberty and national security program. "It puts the Obama administration on the wrong side of history when it comes to the civil liberties of Americans."
It would be no surprise if the president's response reflects restraint. Obama and his aides have repeatedly signaled their preference for modest fixes rather than a wholesale overhaul when it comes to how the NSA operates the controversial bulk data program, which has been at the center of public and Congressional outrage since the Snowden leaks began last year.
Going back to a White House news conference in August, at the height of the furor over the Snowden revelations, Obama has insisted that the "metadata" programs are valuable and suggested that Americans only need to be assured that safeguards are in place to prevent abuse.
Even after members of an intelligence review panel appointed by the president concluded that the program has played no significant role in preventing any terrorist attack, Obama continues to maintain bulk collection is an important national security tool.
The New York Times on Wednesday reported that though Obama will call for some reforms in how the NSA collects bulk data, he will not endorse leaving the data in the custody of telecommunications firms — as recommended by the intelligence review panel. Obama is also likely to reject another panel recommendation that the FBI seek court permission for all so-called national security letters (NSL), which now allow the agency to obtain certain financial records without court approval.
The White House on Wednesday said Obama was in the final stages of his review but declined further comment .
"The center for real reform has to be ending the bulk collection program — starting with the collection of Americans records," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology. "If the president blinks on that and simply tells Congress to go off and figure out who should hold the data, its going to be an extraordinary disappointment."
Ahead of the president's speech, John Bates, a former chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), weighed in on the debate this week with a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. He argued that some of the recommendations by the review panel, such as requiring the FBI to seek court approval for all national security letters, would have a negative impact.
FBI Director James Comey also weighed in on the issue last week, calling the national security letters "one of the most highly regulated things the FBI does."
"I don't know why you would make it harder to get an NSL than a grand jury subpoena," Comey told reporters.
Bates also took aim at the review panel's recommendation that Obama name a public advocate to the FISC, calling it "unnecessary" and potentially "counterproductive." However, the NSA's outgoing deputy director, John Chris Inglis said last week that the agency would welcome the creation of a public advocate position at the court.
On potentially the most decisive calls for reform, Obama will punt to Congress — which has already floated bills at the committee level to curb bulk data collection. If Congress fails to act, the NSA controversy could still be a stain on Obama's legacy, said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"If Congress fails to act on this matter, as it has on other critical policy issues, President Obama will effectively be handing off a treasure trove of all our private data to succeeding presidents – whether it is Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee or Hillary Clinton," Romero said.