The Complex

Inside the White House Meetings to Reform the NSA

President Obama and White House officials met Thursday with members of Congress and privacy and civil liberties groups to discuss potential modifications to NSA surveillance. But the administration gave away little about its plans, which officials said the president could announce as early as next week.

Privacy groups reiterated their call for the administration to end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, according to participants in a meeting with White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. The White House has not committed to ending the program, but reportedly the president has considered handing over the phone data to a third party and requiring the NSA to obtain court approval when it wants to query a suspicious phone number in the database.

Marc Rotenberg, the president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said he wasn't sure how the president will ultimately come down on the issue, but that White House officials underscored that they were listening carefully to suggestions and considering recommendations by experts as well as a presidential review panel.

"They wanted everyone to understand that they're giving this great consideration," Rotenberg told Foreign Policy. He added that Obama could address revelations about NSA monitoring foreigners' communications in his State of the Union Address on January 28, which coincidentally is Data Privacy Day, an occasion for advocacy groups and officials around the world to raise awareness about protecting personal information.

Revelations of NSA spying on foreign leaders and collecting large amounts of communications of foreigners have embarrassed the White House and strained diplomatic ties abroad.

"I think the international dimension will likely play a role in what the president says in his speech," Rotenberg said.

The meeting in the Roosevelt Room lasted more than an hour and stayed mostly focused on the collection of phone records. Other concerns, such as those about the NSA's policy of undermining encryption, received comparatively little discussion, participants said, to the frustration of some privacy reform advocates.

Earlier Thursday, members of Congress met with Obama, and were likewise mostly focused on collection of Americans' phone records by the NSA. They too said the President made no announcements or concrete commitments to change policies.

"He kept his cards close to the vest in terms of what the reform will look like," Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, told FP. He shared his thoughts on the value of different programs and the privacy interests that are implicated but what his ultimate conclusion will be is finding the right balance ..."

"I think he's working his way through," Schiff said. "I'm glad he hasn't made up his mind, otherwise our input wouldn't have much value..." Schiff said he reiterated his position that the phone records program should be restructured, and said the president should reject proposals to store the information with a third party.

"I think telecommunications companies should hold their own data," Schiff said. "Otherwise, the third party will come to be viewed as a surrogate of the NSA."

Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that Obama should explain to the American people why the phone records program is valuable if he intends to keep it.

"I have urged President Obama to bring more transparency to the National Security Agency's intelligence-gathering programs in order to regain the trust of the American people," Goodlatte said. "The President has unique information about the merits of these programs and the extent of their usefulness.?This information is critical to informing Congress on how far to go in reforming the programs."

Saul Loeb / AP

National Security

Congressmen Reveal Secret Report’s Findings to Discredit Snowden

Updated 3:50 p.m. EST

A Pentagon review has concluded that the disclosure of classified documents taken by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden could "gravely impact" America's national security and risk the lives of U.S. military personnel, and that leaks to journalists have already revealed sources and methods of intelligence operations to America's adversaries. At least, that's how two members of Congress who have read the classified report are characterizing its findings. But the lawmakers -- who are working in coordination with the Obama administration and are trying to counter the narrative that Snowden is a heroic whistleblower -- offered no specific examples to substantiate their claims.

In harsh language that all but accused Snowden of treason, the top members of the House Intelligence Committee said the report shows that Snowden downloaded "1.7 million intelligence files," which they described as "the single largest theft of secrets in the history of the United States."

"This report confirms my greatest fears -- Snowden's real acts of betrayal place America's military men and women at greater risk," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in a statement Thursday. "Snowden's actions are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field."

Rogers was joined by the committee's ranking member, Dutch Ruppersberger, who said, "Snowden handed terrorists a copy of our country's playbook and now we are paying the price, which this report confirms. His actions aligned him with our enemy."

A congressional staffer who is familiar with the report's findings said that the lawmakers chose to make some of its contents public in order to counter what they see as a false impression of Snowden as a principled whistleblower who disclosed abuses of power.

"Snowden has been made out by some people to be a hero. What we need to do is really look at the effect of his leaks and see that what he's done is really harm our country and put citizens at risk. The purpose [of releasing some findings] is to clear the record and show that he's not a hero," the staffer told Foreign Policy.

The staffer said that the administration approved the information that the lawmakers disclosed in advance. Rogers and Ruppersberger, along with other lawmakers, were scheduled to meet with President Obama at the White House Thursday afternoon to discuss the findings of a review panel on NSA surveillance. The administration is expected to announce plans soon to rein in aspects of NSA's operations.

Rogers and Ruppersberger said that "much of the information stolen by Snowden is related to current U.S. military operations." Citing press reports that have focused on foreign intelligence gathering by the NSA, they said, "Snowden's disclosures have already tipped off our adversaries to the sources and methods of our defense, and hurt U.S. allies helping us with counter terrorism, cyber crime, human and narcotics trafficking, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." The lawmakers cited no articles or specific documents to support that claim.

The Defense Department report was conducted by the Defense Intelligence Agency in coordination with other intelligence agencies across the government, according to two sources familiar with its findings. A spokesperson for the DIA said Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the agency's director, organized a task force "to assess the potential impact to the Department of Defense from the compromise of this information." But the spokesman did not say what, if any, conclusions the task force had reached about actual damage caused by documents Snowden took, regardless of whether they've been disclosed or not. 

Critics accused the lawmakers of slectively leaking information and using vague language about the real vs. potential damage from Snowden's disclosures. "No specific examples are actually given, and you will also notice in virtually every sentence includes the word 'could' -- meaning real damage hasn't actually occurred, they are just saying it potentially could happen," Trevor Timm, the co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote in a blog post. "And of course, the actual report is secret, so the two Congressmen are able to say whatever they wish about it, and it can't be independently verified."

A spokesperson for the Director of National Intelligence would not comment on the findings of the classified report. But he called Snowden's leaks "unnecessarily and extremely damaging to the United States and the intelligence community's national security efforts."

"As a result of these disclosures, terrorists and their support networks, now have a better understanding of our collection methods and, make no mistake about it, they are taking countermeasures," said Shawn Turner, the DNI spokesman. "Specifically, we have seen in response to the Snowden leaks al Qaeda and affiliated groups seeking to change their tactics, looking to see what they can learn from what's in the press and seeking to change how they communicate to avoid detection and avoid our surveillance."

The question of how much information took from the NSA has been difficult to answer, and the statement from members of Congress didn't clarify the matter. Estimates in the press, quoting anonymous officials, have ranged from 50,000 documents to nearly two million.

The lawmakers didn't specify what constituted an "intelligence file," as they put it, in claiming that Snowden had disclosed 1.7 million of them. The senior NSA official leading its review of the leaks, Richard Ledgett, was asked in an interview with 60 Minutes about claims that Snowden has taken 1.7 million "documents."

"I wouldn't dispute that," Ledgett replied. Ledgett is in line to become the NSA's next deputy director, following the resignation of the previous No. 2, Chris Inglis, according to sources who are familiar with the matter.