President Confronts NSA Critics

Obama, Tech Leaders Share Views on Surveillance Program
President Confronts NSA Critics
President Obama meets with tech company executives (White House photo).

President Obama met with technology company executives critical of his administration's surveillance program a day after a federal district judge ruled that portions of the National Security Agency program could be unconstitutional (see Judge Rules Against NSA Collection Program).

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Gathering in the White House's Roosevelt Room on Dec. 17, the group addressed a letter eight of the companies sent the president on Dec. 9 that urged him to reform laws and government practices (see Online Firms Blast NSA's Tactics).

Attending the White House meeting were leaders from Apple, AT&T, Comcast, Dropbox, Etsy, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Netflix, Salesforce, Sherpa Global, Twitter, Yahoo and Zynga.

Surveillance Reform Urged

Neither the administration nor the executives from the companies provided specific details on the meeting. The executives issued a joint statement after the session that reads: "We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the president our principles on government surveillance that we released last week, and we urge him to move aggressively on reform."

A White House statement also furnished scant details about specifics addressed during the two-hour session.

"The group discussed the national security and economic impacts of unauthorized intelligence disclosures," the White House says. "This was an opportunity for the president to hear from CEOs directly as we near completion of our review of signals intelligence programs, building on the feedback we've received from the private sector in recent weeks and months.

"The president made clear his belief in an open, free, and innovative Internet and listened to the group's concerns and recommendations, and made clear that we will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs."

New Adviser

The White House also says the president and Vice President Joe Biden discussed with the executives the improved performance of, the website for the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, that's been criticized for potential security shortcomings (see How Secure Is It Now?).

At the meeting, Obama announced that Kurt DelBene, who most recently served as president of Microsoft's Office Division, on Dec. 18 will succeed Jeff Zients as senior adviser to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, focusing on improving and the health insurance marketplace.

Judge's NSA Ruling

On Dec. 16, Federal District Judge Richard Leon ruled that an NSA program collecting metadata from telephone calls could be unconstitutional, adding to the furor over the way the spy agency collects data on Americans. Leon's ruling, which was stayed to allow the government to appeal his decision, followed by a week the letter sent by the executives who contend the surveillance program undermines efforts the companies take to protect the privacy of their customers.

The administration's headaches over the surveillance program are a result of leaks of secret NSA documents by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. Richard Ledgett, the senior NSA official investigating the leaks, suggested in a weekend interview that Snowden be pardoned if he turns over all of the remaining documents he acquired without authorization. But the White House rejected that idea.

"Mr. Snowden is accused of leaking classified information and faces felony charges here in the United States," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden says. "He should be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process and protections."

The White House also rejected the idea of doing away with having the NSA director also head the military's Cyber Command. Gen. Keith Alexander, the current NSA director who will soon retire, was given the additional role as commander of the Cyber Command when that organization was created in 2009 (see First Military Cyber Commander Confirmed).

"Following a thorough interagency review, the administration has decided that keeping the positions of NSA director and Cyber Command commander together as one, dual-hatted position is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies' missions," Hayden says. "Given Gen. Alexander's retirement this spring, it was the natural time to review the existing arrangement."

By maintaining that relationship, the administration says, Cyber Command can fully leverage NSA's cryptologic enterprise to direct the operation and defense of Defense Department networks, which enable a more coordinated and rapid response to countering threats in cyberspace. Without the dual-hat arrangement, the administration contends, elaborate procedures would have to be put in place to ensure that effective coordination continued and avoid creating duplicative capabilities in each organization.

40 New Recommendations

The White House late last week received a report from the president's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which offered more than 40 recommendations on how the NSA can optimally protect national security and advance foreign policy while accounting for other policy considerations, including the need to maintain public trust and reduce the risk of unauthorized intelligence disclosure.

Hayden says the administration's national intelligence team should complete its review of the report next month, when Obama will announce a plan.

Despite the seriousness of matters surrounding the surveillance programs, the president's session with the technology executives had its lighthearted moments. According to a White House media pool report, Obama could be heard during a photo opportunity asking Netflix CEO Reed Hastings: "I'm just wondering if you brought advance copies of 'House of Cards?'" Hastings laughed and invited Obama to do a cameo on the Netflix series about brutal Washington politics, starring Kevin Spacey. Obama said of the series' take on Washington: "I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient." Obama mentioned Spacey's role as the Machiavellian House majority whip and said of him, "This guy's getting a lot of stuff done."

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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