FORT MEADE, Md. — Many of the new privacy protections and surveillance reforms ordered by President Barack Obama will probably not harm the National Security Agency's ability to do its job, the agency's deputy said.
“They're not putting us out of business,” Deputy Director Rick Ledgett said in a recent interview at the agency's headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. “They're not putting an unbearable burden on us. There is a cost to implementing those procedures. But the cost is reasonable, and the effects are not hurting our mission in a significant way.”
In a January speech, Obama announced a series of reforms aimed at restoring the public's trust in the NSA after six months of disclosures about the agency's surveillance activities created concerns about government overreach.
But the impact of the most significant reform — an end to the NSA's collection and storage of data about Americans' phone calls — is still far from clear, because officials have yet to come up with a plan to do it and Congress must approve any change.
Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. to develop options by March 28 while preserving the agency's ability to use the data effectively in counterterrorism investigations.
Ledgett said that collecting and storing the data “is a burden” in terms of the effort, time and money it takes to maintain it and be compliant. “You're always on your toes to make sure that you're doing it exactly right because the consequences are severe if you don't,” he said. “So it is not something that we want to do. It is something that we have to do.”
Two other changes to the program — which collects numbers dialed and the time and duration of calls, but not content — are more immediate and apply to the data as long as the information is still held by the government. First, the agency is limited to analyzing links to suspected terrorists' phone numbers that are only two steps, or “hops,” removed from the suspect, instead of three. And the NSA must now obtain court approval before it can run a suspect number against the database. In what Obama called “true” emergencies, it may query the data without prior court approval.
Obama's reforms are the result of a months-long process of internal review led by senior White House officials and informed by a study by a presidentially appointed advisory panel and a separate report by an independent civil liberties oversight board.
They also include extending to foreigners certain privacy protections enjoyed by U.S. citizens and residents. Those safeguards apply to the retention and dissemination of foreigners' personal information incidentally collected in overseas surveillance, but do not include a requirement that a warrant be obtained before a foreigner can be targeted.
“The result of all that was a fair balance between the recognition that the changes in technology needed extra attention from a policy point of view, and the understanding of and support for the job of the intelligence community,” Ledgett said.
A significant number of lawmakers are intent on ending the government's bulk collection of Americans' data and are reluctant to replace it with a third party holding the records. If Congress and the administration cannot come up with a plan to move the data out of the NSA's hands, the program could well end in June 2015, when the law underpinning the program expires.
At that point, Ledgett said, “the policy-making community and legal community will decide how much risk they're willing to take, and we'll comply with that.”
The reforms were driven largely by the fallout from a series of revelations about NSA surveillance by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama has said that none of the revelations have shown that the intelligence community “has sought to violate the law.” Nonetheless, Obama conceded that for the intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, “we must maintain the trust of the American people, and people around the world.”
Ledgett acknowledged that the disclosures have altered relationships with tech companies. A number of firms used to routinely engage with the agency to discuss new technologies, but in recent months “we've seen some reluctance” to meet without “a higher level of approval” from company executives, he said.
As the NSA moves into a new year, it will seek to be more transparent, Ledgett said. “We've always been the No Such Agency, Never Say Anything” agency, he said, referring to the monikers that its acronym and the 62-year-old agency's tradition of near-obsessive secrecy have inspired.
“So NSA is going to be more transparent in terms of helping people understand what our mission is, who our people are and how we do our mission,” Ledgett said, “because that's a necessary component to having the support and trust of the American people and the Congress and the tech companies and our allies. . . . So that's got to change.”