The top leaders from the world’s biggest technology companies pressed their case for reform of the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance operations at a meeting with President Obama on Tuesday, resisting attempts by the White House to portray the encounter as a wide-ranging discussion of broader priorities.
Senior executives from the companies whose bosses were present at the meeting said they were determined to keep the discussion focused on the NSA, despite the White House declaring in advance that it would focus on ways of improving the functionality of the troubled health insurance website, health care.gov, among other matters.
“That is not going to happen,” said an executive at one of the major tech companies represented at the meeting. “We are there to talk about the NSA,” said the executive, who was briefed on the company’s agenda before the event.
An executive at another company present at the White House on Tuesday described any other issues as “peripheral”. The executive, who also declined to be named in order to discuss his company’s strategy, said: “There’s only one subject that people really want to discuss right now.”
After meeting Obama and vice president Joe Biden for two-and-a-half hours, the companies issued a one-line statement. “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,” they said.
Many of the senior tech leaders had already made public their demand for sweeping surveillance reforms in an open letter that specifically called for a ban on the kind of bulk data collection that a federal judge ruled on Monday was probably unlawful.
Judge Richard Leon’s ruling, which will now be subject to an appeal, is the most significant legal setback for the NSA since the publication of the first surveillance disclosures by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, and it comes at a pivotal moment for the future of the agency.
The president and his advisers were already considering the recommendations of an NSA review panel set up in the wake of Snowden’s revelations. They are also considering the future leadership of the agency, whose director and deputy director are stepping down.
They must now grapple with the fallout from a damning court ruling that concluded the mass collection of phone records probably violates the fourth amendment — which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures — and is “almost Orwellian” in its scope. Leon said James Madison, who played a key role in drafting the US constitution, would be “aghast” at the scope of the agency’s collection of Americans’ communications data, were he alive today.
The decision by the tech giants to press their case in such a public and unified way poses another problem for the White House. The industry is an increasingly influential voice in Washington, a vital part of the US economy and many of its most successful leaders are prominent Democratic political donors.
In recent months, the technology companies have become increasingly vocal in their demands for NSA reform, and more revelations have emerged from documents leaked by Snowden.
Among those meeting Obama at the White House were Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, and Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. Senior representatives from Comcast, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and Netflix were also there. So too was Randall Stephenson, the chairman and CEO of AT&T, one of the telecom providers routinely required to provide the NSA with metadata about its US customers.
On 9 December, many of those in the meeting wrote to Obama calling for major reforms of the NSA. “This summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide,” the companies wrote in their statement.
The revelations had “shaken the trust of our users”, Mayer said in the joint statement. “And it is time for the US government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world.”
Among their specific demands where:
• A limit to the government’s authority to collect users’ information.
• More independent and public oversight of the intelligence agencies.
• Transparency about government demands for information from tech firms — now subject to reporting restrictions.
With legislation to reform the NSA currently stalled on Capitol Hill, and unlikely to resurface until January, privacy advocates are focused on the White House, which could enact its own changes if the president is persuaded of the need. An intense lobbying effort has gone on for months, with senior figures in the intelligence community warning that any significant dilution of its powers will risk another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11.
The NSA review panel, which handed its findings to Obama on Friday, has reportedly proposed only limited reforms, saying the NSA’s surveillance tools should be amended in light of Snowden’s disclosures but essentially remain intact. One decisive factor in the president’s considerations could be the White House’s recent appointment of John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff.
Podesta, whose role as éminence grise to the president begins next month, has gone on the record saying Obama should establish a “national commission” to respond to the legitimate concerns raised by Snowden’s disclosures. Podesta added in an interview with Der Spiegel in July: “Surely we can meet our national security needs without sacrificing the respect for personal privacy that has long been a hallmark of American life?”
Specifically, Podesta expressed concern about the relevance of legal precedents being used to justify massive data collection on the digital era, a view apparently in sync with Monday’s court ruling. “In the United States, court decisions from the pre-internet days suggest that the information we give away voluntarily to these companies can be obtained fairly easily by the government,” he said.
“That legal rule may have made sense in an age before Facebook and iPhones, but we need a serious examination of whether it still makes sense today.”
Hours before Tuesday’s meeting, Snowden released an open letter to Brazil, offering to shed light on US spying in return for political asylum. Snowden currently has temporary asylum in Russia. The White House has rejected the suggestion that administration might offer him amnesty.
The idea of an amnesty in return for Snowden securing data was floated by Richard Ledgett, the senior NSA official tasked managing the fallout from Snowden’s leaks — and a potential candidate to become the new director of the spy agency.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk