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Analysis

US intelligence-gathering unlikely to change much

WASHINGTON — “I already won,” Edward Snowden declared recently about the reaction to his disclosures of National Security Agency secrets.

But as President Barack Obama prepares to announce new recommendations and rules for government surveillance in a speech Friday, it is the nation’s intelligence agencies that appear to be coming out on top.

Officials said Obama, who discussed the topic with British Prime Minister David Cameron in a telephone call Thursday, was still deciding on the proposals he will offer. But the president already has made it clear that his objective is not to fundamentally change what the NSA does so much as to make Americans, and U.S. allies, more comfortable with it.

“The question we’re going to have to ask is, can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence?” Obama said at a news conference last month.

The president seems likely to propose new procedural safeguards, such as a public advocate who could counter arguments from government lawyers before the secret court that oversees surveillance practices. He also seems likely to limit eavesdropping on at least some foreign leaders. On some issues he appears likely to defer decisions to Congress.

But officials have indicated he will heed objections from the NSA and other agencies and reject certain proposals, including some from his own appointed review panel that would have more substantially changed how electronic spying is conducted and private data are collected.

Despite pressure from both the right and the left to rein in what they view as intrusive domestic surveillance, Congress so far has not had a majority in favor of major changes.

Polls show that many Americans worry that government surveillance programs may have gone too far. More than 1 in 4 Americans said in a poll last summer that they believed government officials had listened to their telephone calls or read their emails — a possibility that Snowden’s disclosures do not support. The NSA’s huge collection of telephone data includes phone numbers and information about the length of calls, but not the contents of conversations.

But the same polls show that many people who express unease about government surveillance programs also think those efforts may be necessary to combat terrorism.

Snowden’s disclosures have produced no evidence that intelligence agencies have used their vast powers to pursue people other than potential terrorists. Critics note that once-secret court documents show numerous examples of NSA analysts violating the rules governing the surveillance program. But in the absence of individual abuses, the NSA’s opponents have been unable to rally a clear majority of the public to their side.

In the face of such ambivalence, many elected officials have not wanted to risk the possibility of a terrorist attack being blamed on a vote to curtail intelligence gathering.

In the seven months since Snowden began leaking highly classified details about how the NSA spies abroad and collects digital data on Americans, the agency has faced a series of crises.

Intelligence officials say the disclosures have caused some potential targets to change how they communicate, hindering the NSA’s ability to combat terrorist plots.

Snowden revealed, for example, that the NSA could eavesdrop on conversations on Skype, a popular voice-over-Internet service that many had thought was secure. Suspected terrorists began avoiding Skype, closing down a rich vein of intelligence, officials say.

Snowden also disclosed that the U.S. may have cracked the encryption on Russian diplomatic communications, news that surely led to codes being changed. Another recent disclosure showed that the NSA could use radio waves to secretly steal or alter data from computers overseas that aren’t connected to the Internet. Among the reported targets were Russian military networks, Mexican drug cartels and a Chinese Army hacking operation.

The public exposure of that technology will undercut its use, officials said.

The leaks have upset foreign governments, some of which are now less likely to cooperate with U.S. intelligence, officials say. And they have undermined Obama’s campaign to persuade China’s government to stop hacking American companies and stealing intellectual property.

Domestically, the disclosures have boosted the fortunes of some NSA critics, most notably Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., whose stand last year against government surveillance helped move him to the front ranks of Republican political figures. In contrast, the revelations appear to have hurt Obama’s standing among some liberals.

Despite all that, the NSA has maintained support where it needed it most: at the White House and among key congressional leaders.

Snowden, in the Washington Post interview in which he made his victory claim, said his only goal was to create a public debate about the NSA and its powers.

“I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself,” he said. “All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.”

But civil liberties advocates are frustrated.

Mark M. Jaycox, an analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy advocacy group, says he is disappointed because Obama had criticized NSA surveillance activities when he was a senator.

Now “we have a President Obama who has witnessed the bulk collection (of domestic telephone data) and sees just how much information is being collected,” Jaycox said. “And yet he continues the program.”

Many privacy advocates, conceding that they have made little progress in this round, hope to do better next year.

The provision of the Patriot Act that allows the NSA to amass telephone metadata expires in June 2015. Because the agency’s authority will end if no new legislation passes, backers of the intelligence agency will have the burden of persuading their colleagues to vote to keep it in place.

“Public opinion is moving our way,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the leading congressional critics of the NSA. “More and more people think that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive.”
 

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