Spy agencies add restrictions to use of email and cellphone data

Spy agencies add restrictions to use of email and cellphone data
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose revelations prompted scrutiny of U.S. government digital surveillance practices. (Frederick Florin / AFP/Getty Images)

More than a year after President Obama promised to reform U.S. digital spying operations, the White House announced minor changes to how intelligence and law enforcement agencies may use electronic communications of foreigners collected by the National Security Agency.

Under changes made public Tuesday, information that is not relevant to a national security matter must be deleted from databases after five years.


Data may be held longer if it falls under one of six broadly defined areas: counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, cybersecurity, threats to U.S. or allied armed forces or personnel, and transnational crime.

The modest reforms did not curtail the NSA's controversial bulk collection of domestic telephone calling records, one of the classified programs that was exposed by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor now living in Moscow.

The new policy also took a small step toward lifting gag orders on U.S. telecommunications and other companies that are required to hand over data records related to a national security investigation.

Companies that receive so-called national security letters from the FBI have been forbidden from making the requests public.

Under the changes, a company can publicly disclose the request after three years unless a mid-level manager at the FBI objects on national security grounds.

White House counter-terrorism advisor Lisa Monaco said U.S. intelligence collection should take into account that "all persons have legitimate privacy interests" in how their personal information is handled.

"At the same time," Monaco said in a statement, "we must ensure that our intelligence community has the resources and authorities necessary for the United States to advance its national security and foreign policy interests and to protect its citizens and the citizens of its allies and partners from harm."

The incremental adjustments seem to show that U.S. counter-terrorism officials have come to rely heavily on the collection programs, and were reluctant to revamp them despite Obama's pledge to review them in a speech at the Justice Department in January 2014.

Critics of the NSA surveillance program believed the changes didn't go far enough.

Elizabeth Goitein, an expert on government secrecy and co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said the reforms are “positive steps.”

But the Snowden disclosures "revealed that we need a fundamental course correction," Goitein said in a statement.

"As long as the government is collecting Americans' telephone records, listening to their phone calls, and reading their emails without any suspicion of wrongdoing, the gulf between our constitutional values and the government's surveillance practices remains," she said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has been critical of the NSA’s practice of storing Americans' telephone data, said, “There is much, much more work to be done."

Wyden, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and has been briefed on NSA programs, said the CIA and FBI should be ordered to halt warrantless searches of Americans’ emails and other communications in NSA databases.

"This dragnet collection does not make our country safer, it violates the privacy of millions of Americans, and the president can end it right now," Wyden said.

For more reporting on national security follow me on Twitter @ByBrianBennett.