The surveillance reforms Obama supported before he was president

Five years ago, Senator Barack Obama was part of a group of legislators that supported substantial changes to NSA surveillance programs. Here are seven ways he's flip flopped his stance on the NSA since becoming president

When the House of Representatives recently considered an amendment that would have dismantled the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program, the White House swiftly condemned the measure. But only five years ago, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. was part of a group of legislators that supported substantial changes to NSA surveillance programs. Here are some of the proposals the president co-sponsored as a senator.

As a senator, Obama wanted to limit bulk records collection.

Obama co-sponsored a 2007 bill, introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would have required the government to demonstrate, with “specific and articulable facts,” that it wanted records related to “a suspected agent of a foreign power” or the records of people with one degree of separation from a suspect. The bill died in committee. Following pressure from the Bush administration, lawmakers had abandoned a similar 2005 measure, which Obama also supported.

We now know the Obama administration has sought, and obtained, the phone records belonging to all Verizon Business Network Services subscribers (and reportedly, Sprint and AT&T subscribers, as well). Once the NSA has the database, analysts search through the phone records and look at people with two or three degrees of separation from suspected terrorists.

The measure Obama supported in 2007 is actually similar to the House amendment that the White House condemned earlier this month. That measure, introduced by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Conyers, D-Mich., would have ended bulk phone records collection but still allowed the NSA to collect records related to individual suspects without a warrant based on probable cause.

The 2007 measure is also similar to current proposals introduced by Conyers and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

As a senator, Obama wanted to require government analysts to get court approval before accessing incidentally collected American data.

In Feb. 2008, Obama co-sponsored an amendment, also introduced by Feingold, which would have further limited the ability of the government to collect any communications to or from people residing in the U.S.

The measure would have also required government analysts to segregate all incidentally collected American communications. If analysts wanted to access those communications, they would have needed to apply for individualized surveillance court approval.

The amendment failed 35-63. Obama later reversed his position and supported what became the law now known to authorize the PRISM program. That legislation — the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 — also granted immunity to telecoms that had cooperated with the government on surveillance.

The law ensured the government would not need a court order to collect data from foreigners residing outside the United States. According to the Washington Post, analysts are told that they can compel companies to turn over communications if they are 51 percent certain the data belongs to foreigners.

Powerpoint presentation slides published by the Guardian indicate that when analysts use XKeyscore — the software the NSA uses to sift through huge amounts of raw internet data — they must first justify why they have reason to believe communications are foreign. Analysts can select from rationales available in dropdown menus and then read the communications without court or supervisor approval.

Finally, analysts do not need court approval to look at previously-collected bulk metadata either, even domestic metadata. Instead, the NSA limits access to incidentally collected American data according to its own “minimization” procedures. A leaked 2009 document said that analysts only needed permission from their “shift coordinators” to access previously-collected phone records. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., has introduced a bill that would require analysts to get special court approval to search through telephone metadata.

As a senator, Obama wanted the executive branch to report to Congress how many American communications had been swept up during surveillance.

Feingold’s 2008 amendment, which Obama supported, would have also required the Defense Department and Justice Department to complete a joint audit of all incidentally collected American communications and provide the report to congressional intelligence committees. The amendment failed 35-63.

The Inspector General of the Intelligence Community told Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Co. last year that it would be unfeasible to estimate how many American communications have been incidentally collected, and doing so would violate Americans’ privacy rights.

As a senator, Obama wanted to restrict the use of gag orders related to surveillance court orders.

Obama co-sponsored at least two measures that would have made it harder for the government to issue nondisclosure orders to businesses when compelling them to turn over customer data.

One 2007 bill would have required the government to demonstrate that disclosure could cause one of six specific harms: by either endangering someone, causing someone to avoid prosecution, encouraging the destruction of evidence, intimidating potential witnesses, interfering with diplomatic relations, or threatening national security. It would have also required the government to show that the gag order was “narrowly tailored” to address those specific dangers. Obama also supported a similar measure in 2005. Neither measure made it out of committee.

The Obama administration has thus far prevented companies from disclosing information about surveillance requests. Verizon’s surveillance court order included a gag order.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and Google have filed motions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking permission to release aggregate data about directives they’ve received. Microsoft has said the Justice Department and the FBI had previously denied its requests to release more information. The Justice Department has asked for more time to consider lifting the gag orders.

As a senator, Obama wanted to give the accused a chance to challenge government surveillance.

Obama co-sponsored a 2007 measure that would have required the government to tell defendants before it used any evidence collected under the controversial section of the Patriot Act. (That section, known as 215, has served as the basis for the bulk phone records collection program.) Obama also supported an identical measure in 2005.

Both bills would have ensured that defendants had a chance to challenge the legalityof Patriot Act surveillance. The Supreme Court has since held that plaintiffs who cannot prove they have been monitored cannot challenge NSA surveillance programs.

Those particular bills did not make it out of committee. But another section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires that the government tell defendants before it uses evidence collected under that law.

Until recently, federal prosecutors would not tell defendants what kind of surveillance had been used.

The New York Times reported that in two separate bomb plot prosecutions, the government resisted efforts to reveal whether its surveillance relied on a traditional FISA order, or the 2008 law now known to authorize PRISM. As a result, defense attorneys had been unable to contest the legality of the surveillance. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., later said that in both cases, the government had relied on the 2008 law, though prosecutors now dispute that account.

On July 30, the Justice Department reversed its position in one bomb plot prosecution. The government disclosed that it had not gathered any evidence under the 2008 law now known to authorize sweeping surveillance.

But that’s not the only case in which the government has refused to detail its surveillance. When San Diego cab driver BasaalySaeedMoalin was charged with providing material support to terrorists based on surveillance evidence in Dec. 2010, his attorney, Joshua Dratel, tried to get the government’s wiretap application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The government refused, citing national security.

Dratel only learned that the government had used Moalin’s phone records as the basis for its wiretap application — collected under Section 215 of the Patriot Act — when FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce cited the Moalin case as a success story for the bulk phone records collection program.

Reuters has also reported that a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit uses evidence from surveillance to investigate Americans for drug-related crimes, and then directs DEA agents to “recreate” the investigations to cover up the original tip, so defendants won’t know they’ve been monitored.

As a senator, Obama wanted the attorney general to submit a public report giving aggregate data about how many people had been targeted for searches.

Under current law, the attorney general gives congressional intelligence committees a semiannual report with aggregate data on how many people have been targeted for surveillance. Obama co-sponsored a 2005 bill that would have made that report public. The bill didn’t make it out of committee.

Despite requests from Microsoft and Google, the Justice Department has not yet given companies approval to disclose aggregate data about surveillance directives.

As a senator, Obama wanted the government to declassify significant surveillance court opinions.

Currently, the attorney general also gives congressional intelligence committees “significant” surveillance court opinions, decisions and orders and summaries of any significant legal interpretations. The 2005 bill that Obama co-sponsored would have released those opinions to the public, allowing redactions for sensitive national security information.

Before Edward Snowden’s disclosures, the Obama Justice Department had fought Freedom of Information Act lawsuits seeking surveillance court opinions. On July 31, the Director of National Intelligence released a heavily redacted version of the FISA court’s “primary order” compelling telecoms to turn over metadata.

In response to a request from Yahoo, the government also says it is going to declassify court documents showing how Yahoo challenged a government directive to turn over user data. The Director of National Intelligence is still reviewing if there are other surveillance court opinions and other significant documents that may be released. Meanwhile, there are severalbills in Congress that would compel the government to release secret surveillance court opinions.



Pulse Beat

Medical developments from around the world

New Revelations in Cancer Research
“Many authorities now admit much, possibly most, of the world’s cancers came from the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines, and hepatitis B vaccines, produced in monkeys and chimps,” says RealFarmacy website. The website further said, “It is said (that) mesothelioma is a result of asbestos exposure, but research reveals that 50 per cent of the current mesotheliomas being treated no longer occur due to asbestos but rather the SV40 virus contained in polio vaccination.” SV 40 is a virus found both in man and monkeys. As far as specific conditions linked to SV40 are concerned, Michele Carbone, assistant professor of pathology at Loyola University (Chicago), found that the virus is present in many cases of both osteosarcoma bone cancer and the increasingly prevalent lung cancer variety known as mesothelioma. Professor Carbone identified SV40 in about one-third of all osteosarcoma cases studied, in 40% of other bone cancers and in 60% of all cases of mesothelioma.

The Importance of Breakfast
Skipping breakfast could lead to increased heart attacks, according to a study published in the Circulation. Skipping breakfast and eating very late at night are both dangerous; they raise the blood pressure and alter the serum lipids levels. Dr Cahill concluded, “Don’t skip breakfast. Eating breakfast is associated with a decreased risk of heart attacks.
Incorporating many types of healthy foods into your breakfast is an easy way to ensure your meal provides adequate energy and a healthy balance of nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.” Earlier studies had also shown that eating late at night alters metabolic repair processes that increase the risk of developing multiple chronic conditions. Eat a healthy breakfast every morning within the first hour after waking up, and stop eating late night dinners, to dramatically lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome
This is one of the most common bowel problems for those with a stressful lifestyle. More and more researchers are turning to alternate medicine research for this syndrome which defies all pharmaceuticals. Recently, at a meeting in Brussels, French researcher, Ariane Gerkins said that alternate methods of individually tailored regimes should work better. The latter include individual food items and alternate medicines, especially herbal drugs; for symptom relief, psychological support by specially trained counselling has worked wonders.

Cheaper Research in China?
According to The New York Times, executives at one of the British drug majors were warned nearly two years ago about critical problems with the way R&D was conducted in China. The New York Times story suggests that problems may be deeper than just notorious sales practices. It shows how dangerous and problematic it can be when pharmaceuticals companies export R&D to China. Since 2006, 13 of the top 20 global drug-makers have set up R&D centres in China, according to a report by McKinsey & Company.

Pertinent Questions That Await Answers
Many of the following questions are awaiting their true answers which we do not get from the usual claptrap of modern medicine: Does chlorella fight cancer? Has aspartame been scientifically studied for side-effects? Does curcumin treat arthritis? Is the Mediterranean Diet supported by science? Are statin drugs dangerous? What is the link between vaccines and autism? What are the side-effects of arsenic exposure? What are the side-effects of drinking processed milk? Are food ingredients safe? What scientific literature supports the benefits of super-foods? How dangerous is chemotherapy? Dr Mike Adams has tried to answer all of these on his website:


Call Your MPs and let them know what you think about RTI Act amendment

The former Central Information Commissioner spent about six hours on telephone at different times and has spoken with 15 MPs trying to persuade them against voting for the amendment to the RTI Act

I received an email from Suresh Ediga who is an Indian in US in which he mentioned that he is calling up members of Parliament (MPs) from India and trying to persuade them against voting for the amendment to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. He also wrote that MPs were talking with him.


I was first cynical and wondered how to get the phone numbers of MPs and whether any of them would pick up phones and talk.  However, I felt if an Indian can call from US, I should certainly try. I have spent about six hours on the telephone so far at different times and I have spoken with 15 MPs. What was my experience?


For starters, most telephones can be obtained from SarkariTel Lok Sabha  

  and for Rajya Sabha These numbers work and many MPs do pick up the calls themselves.


I have been able to speak with 15 MPs so far and have got varying responses, which are listed below.








Roy Saugata


Trinamool Congress

Party will oppose amendment to RTI Act.


Roy Nripendra Nath




Parliament will decide. Not feasible to

Consult and discuss with citizens.


Rathwa Ramsingh



Did not argue but heard my plea  [email protected]


Rana Rajendrasingh



[email protected]

Agreed that amendments are not justified and promised to persuade his colleagues not to agree to the amendments.


Rai Premdas


Sikkim Democratic Front

Spoke with me but said he had not made up his mind. Would consider my arguments. Emailed: [email protected]


Radadiya Viththakbhai



Heard me and said he would discuss in the party. Did not appear to be conversant with RTI amendment issue.


Abdul Rahman

09********5; 09********0


He agrees that amending RTI is not right and says he will argue for this

[email protected]


Adhikari Suvendu


Trinamool Congress

Said his party will oppose any amendments [email protected]


Agrawal Rajendra



[email protected]

Agreed with me that RTI should not be amended and said he would present this view


Ahir Hansraj



Agreed with me and said he would put this view across in the party’s meeting on Tuesday.


Adityanath Yogi



[email protected]

Agrees that amending RTI Act not right. Will raise this in the party meet.



Shashi Bhushan Behera



Agrees that amendment may not be right, and definitely agrees that even if an amendment is desirable, it should be done after public discussion.


HK Dua



Says he feels Information Commissioners selection leads to improper Commissioners being selected. He feels relatively the Election Commissioners are better and hence is unwilling to give powers to the Information Commissioners over political parties.


Anu Aga



Has issued a statement opposing amendment to the RTI Act.

"I agree with the appeal of ADR-NEW. Amending the RTI act to exclude the political parties from the Act is not the right step. If political parties feel strongly about not coming under RTI, the right step for them will be to move court. The amendment to the RTI Act, if passed, will add substantially to the already widespread resentment across masses and widen the distrust between citizens and the leaders."


Vandana Chavan



Said she agreed with my position that RTI Act should not be amended, but felt there may be reasons, and would discuss this with her party colleagues. She agreed that any proposed amendment should be discussed with Citizens and not rushed through.



I think this is s technique worth adopting to lobby with our MPs on issues, which are important to us. I would suggest that we use this to converse with our MPs.


Please be polite and avoid calling them up at odd times. Give your viewpoint and see if the MP will give his views, but do not insist that he must give an opinion or view.


Take it more as an opportunity of putting your views across.


If we work on this we may be able persuade a few more MPs to change their positions and this would be a big step for democracy. Citizens must use this with maturity.


I admit that when calling, I did disclose that I am a retired Central Information Commissioner.


(Shailesh Gandhi served as Central Information Commissioner under the RTI Act, 2005, during 18 September 2008 to 6 July 2012. He is a graduate in Civil Engineering from IIT-Bombay. Before becoming a full time RTI activist in 2003, he sold his packaging business. In 2008, he was conferred the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Award for civil liberties.)




3 years ago

Nominated MP,(Mr./Mrs.)Anu Aga expressed excellent views, with which I too concur.


3 years ago

If MPs want RTI amendment, they must first participate in a discussion with activists like Shri Shailesh Gandhi etc. By simply voting in favour of amendment without participating in such discussion will mean cowardly act.

S K Gupta

3 years ago

Political Parties nominates the bad and the worse... we have to elect between the 2.... wow! what a choice! Election with no choice or option.... is it possbile that we vote for one and reject/bar one for a least 5 years just to clean the system a bit

Shadi Katyal

3 years ago

The idea of calling our MP is great but what makes you think that any MP of India cares for the voters.
One forgets that we don't choose our MP and some of them donot live in the constituency and will like to hear how many of voters have ever met any MP without paying.
We need our Constitution to be amended where the people have the right to select and elect their MP and not nominated by party.

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