A presidential review group convened by President Barack Obama to examine the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices released its report after much criticism when it was announced that the White House was going to wait until January to make it public.
There is much to examine and explore in the 300-page report. Much of it further vindicates former NSA contractor Edward Snowden for having the courage to take copies of documents, provide copies to journalists and ignite a critical debate on privacy and the powers the NSA has claimed to conduct mass surveillance.
Forty-six recommendations were offered by the group. David Sanger and Charlie Savage of The New York Times pointed out, “The recommendations would remove from the NSA’s hands the authority to conduct many of its operations without review by the president, Congress or the courts. But by themselves, they would terminate few programs.”
One of the recommendations that has received attention is that the group recommended the government terminate storage of US persons’ data in bulk. It suggested that data be retained by private providers (like telecommunications companies) or a private third-party.
Journalist Marcy Wheeler suggested that the report would buy the Obama administration time in the courts and in Congress:
So long as the President deliberates on whether to accept these recommendations (which make changes but have obvious loopholes), he’ll also buy time for DOJ to decide how to respond to these suits. Most important, for them, will be to protect the Third Party doctrine (which allows them to get information from telecoms and banks and other businesses), even if it means mooting the lawsuits by shifting the phone dragnet back to the providers.
I also think the first half (or so) of these recommendations are designed to moot the Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill (FREEDOM). Even if Obama accepted all the recommendations that parallel Leahy-Sensenbrenner (that would affect the phone dragnet, other bulk collection, National Security Letters, back door searches, and other use of incidentally collected US person data), it would still preserve Executive prerogative to resume such practices. They’re not going to do that, mind you, but this will likely stall the debate over Leahy-Sensenbrenner until after Obama makes his decision on what to accept and reject.
I am working on a post that provides a more substantial examination of a few of the group’s recommendations as they relate to non-US persons, but, for now, this recommendation has caught the attention of many who have been following NSA stories closely.
To date, there are no published stories on documents from Snowden that have highlighted or accused the NSA of engaging in cyber attacks on financial accounts or manipulating financial systems.
Der Spiegel reported on September 16 that the NSA monitored “bank and credit card transactions—sometimes in apparent violation of national laws and global regulations.” It had “tapped” the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system on “different levels.”
SWIFT is a “cooperative used by more than 8,000 banks worldwide for their international transactions. The NSA targeted this network along with the internal processes of Visa and MasterCard.
The revelations were considered a circumvention of a treaty the US has with the European Union, and, subsequently, the European Parliament voted to recommend the suspension of its Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) agreement with the US due to the fact that reports suggested EU citizens’ bank data held by SWIFT was being tapped.
Has the NSA gone in and changed the amounts of money in accounts held by suspected terrorists? Or arms traffickers or drug dealers? That has not been released in any reports from journalists Barton Gellman, Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras, who have been publishing stories on documents from Snowden.
Yet, why include this recommendation if the NSA had not targeted financial systems or change the amounts in individual financial accounts of persons?