President Obama’s First Changes to Signal Intelligence Programs

Today, President Obama introduced the changes he ordered with today’s Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-28) to overhaul the controversial intelligence collection programs of the National Security Agency (NSA).


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In the context of the challenges that technology poses to the Intelligence Community in accommodating privacy and security, the Chief Executive looked back at actions already taken in response to the Snowden revelations. These included

and informed the President’s intended overhaul of current signal intelligence (SIGINT) collection programs. He ordered an initial set of changes to be implemented:

  1. the strengthening of “executive branch oversight” of domestic and foreign intelligence activities, including the review of “decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis so that our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior national security team”
  2. the obligation of the director of national intelligence (DNI), in consultation with the attorney general (AG), to review “for the purpose of declassification any future opinions of the court with broad privacy implications”  on an annual basis, and to report respectively to the President and to Congress
  3. the proposition to establish a Congress-authorized “panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases” before the FISC
  4. the call to DNI and AG for additional restrictions on the government’s “ability to retain, search and use in criminal cases communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)
  5. the amendment of the regulations on the use of national security letters with a view to increase transparency, and the enabling of communications providers “to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government”
  6. the two-step transition of the bulk metadata collection under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act into a “a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata”:
  • effective immediately, step 1 includes a) the surveillance of phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization, instead of three, as currently conducted, and b) database queries only based on a “judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency”
  • step 2, the development of alternative options to implement Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act without the government holding the metadata itself by intelligence committee and AG before the program’s reauthorization on March 28th, 2014


The President’s reform list may be longer and contain more tangible changes than expected by skeptics. Yet, although he  introduced the reforms with the intention to adopt them administratively or codified by Congress, only the third party panel for significant FISC cases (point 3.) addresses Congressional authorization directly.

Effective checks and balances require to be established across governmental branches in order to cover the full range of intelligence activities authorized by the Chief Executive, whose PPD-28 on signal intelligence activities of today displays the power he holds:

The collection of signal intelligence shall be authorized by statute or Executive Order, proclamation or other Presidential directive, and undertaken in  accordance with the Constitution and applicable statutes, Executive Orders, proclamations, and Presidential directives.
(section 1 a)


Now that the executive branch has implemented reforms, it is Congress’s turn.


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One Response to “President Obama’s First Changes to Signal Intelligence Programs”

  1. […] start, here’s another update from President Obama’s January 17th speech regarding changes to the government’s surveillance activities.  The Washington […]

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Professor William Snyder

Professor William C. Snyderis a member of the faculty of the Institute for National Security and Counter-terrorism at Syracuse University after fifteen years with the United States Department of Justice.

Ryan D. White

Ryan D. WhiteRyan is currently a third year law student at Syracuse University College of Law, and is also pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Ryan spent time with Homeland Security Investigations while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, and spent his first summer of law school as clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of New York. He is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and participates in the Veteran’s Legal Clinic. Full biography

Shelby E. Mann

Ryan D. WhiteShelby is a second year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law. She is the 2018-9 Editor in Chief of the Syracuse Law Review, as well as a member of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and the senior editor for the Syrian Accountability Project. During her final year at the University of Missouri, she served as a full-time news producer for ABC 17 News. Shelby spent her first summer of law school at the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office in Memphis, Tenn., in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Unit. Full biography

Christopher w. FolkChristopher W. Folk

is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. A non-traditional student, Christopher returned to academia after spending nearly twenty years in the high tech industry. Christopher served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. In Applied Economics and Business Management, attended Northeastern University’s High-Tech MBA Program and received a M.S. In Computer Information Systems. Christopher previously worked in Software Engineering. Christopher is currently serving his second term as Town Justice for the Town of Waterloo. Christopher externed with a Cybersecurity firm in the Washington, D.C. area between his first and second year at SU College of Law. Full biography

Anna Maria Castillo

Anna Maria Castillois 2016 graduate of Syracuse College of Law. She also holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has interned at a London-based think-tank that specializes in transnational terrorism and global security and at the legal department of a defense contractor. She served as an executive editor in the Syracuse Law Review. Full biography

Jennifer A. CamilloJennifer A. Camillo

is a 2015 graduate of Syracuse College of Law and is a prosecutor. She has served as a law clerk in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and the Cayuga County District Attorney’s Office and as an extern in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. She was a member of the Syracuse National Trial Team and was awarded the Tiffany Cup by the New York Bar Association for her trial advocacy achievements.

Tara J. PistoreseTara J. Pistorese

holds Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Administration degrees from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and its College of Law. She wrote for this blog when a student. She is now a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Benjamin Zaiser

is both a scholar and a Federal Agent of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. (Opinions expressed here are his own and not any part of official duty.) Full biography


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