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NEWS ANALYSIS

U.S. intelligence gathering not likely to change much

President Obama, who is speaking on the topic in an address Friday, has indicated that his main objective is to make Americans and allies more comfortable with NSA practices.

January 16, 2014|By David Lauter and Ken Dilanian
  • Edward Snowden’s disclosures have prompted President Obama to consider changes to the way U.S. agencies collect intelligence. He plans a speech to address the issue Friday.
Edward Snowden’s disclosures have prompted President Obama to… (Guardian )

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

But as President Obama prepares to unveil new recommendations and rules for government surveillance in a major 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 making decisions about 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.

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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 handpicked 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 either.

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 massive 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 first 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.

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

Snowden revealed, for example, that the NSA could eavesdrop on conversations over 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 cyberhacking 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 GOP 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.

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