RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. U.S. lawmakers, privacy advocates and foreign governments are still analyzing the implications of President Obama's speech Friday, in which he laid out a series of reforms aimed at changing the way the National Security Agency collects information. It was the president's most outspoken and comprehensive response to the controversial NSA spying programs leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden. To talk about the changes President Obama has suggested and the challenges of implementing those reforms, we've brought in Joel Brenner. He's the former inspector general for the NSA. He joins us in our studio here in Washington. Thanks so much for coming in.
JOEL BRENNER: I'm happy to be with you again, Rachel.
MARTIN: Let's talk about a few of these proposed reforms. First off, the idea that the government is no longer going to be able to hold this so-called metadata. Can you just remind us again what compromises this data? What does it mean?
BRENNER: Yeah, metadata is the electronic equivalent of the writing on the outside of an envelope when you put it in the mailbox. Ultimately, it'll have a postmark on it, which used to tell you more than they tell you now but it says about the origin of this and, to some degree, what path it took. And that's the kind of stuff that comes in bits and bytes and ones and zeroes on a communication that you or I might make in an email, for example.
MARTIN: And the question is where will it be housed if the government isn't going to hold it and the president doesn't like the idea of letting the telecommunications firms hold it, which I what his review panel had actually recommended, then where does it go?
BRENNER: For the time being, it's going to stay where it's been, with the government. What he's done is ask for recommendations by late March on alternatives. I'm not sure there are good alternatives. You could force the telecoms to keep it. You could let it stay where it is. You could put it into a newly created third-party government-controlled reservoir. But what's the difference if you did that? Or you could put it in some kind of a newly created private corporation, but I'm not sure what difference that would make either. I don't think it would keep anybody safer or contribute to privacy. And it would create legal difficulties about what the responsibilities of that private company would be 'cause it's not the government. So, I'm kind of skeptical that there's a meaningful alternative to what's happening now.
MARTIN: But if you keep it with the government, the problem doesn't go away, or the concerns that the president articulated in his speech don't go away.
BRENNER: No, they don't. The model for intelligence has been up till now- for signals intelligence, electronic stuff - that you have very strict rules about what you can collect and then once you get it you can look at it in any way you want. What we're doing now, because of the possibilities of what big data can tell you, we are collecting it - pretty much all of it - not the telephone calls, not the emails, but the metadata, and then having strict rules about when it can be looked at. This turns the traditional model upside down. But NSA hasn't wanted this world. This is simply the world in which it, like a private company or Google or anybody else, operates nowadays. I mean, NSA can't keep the country safer than the country wants to be kept. And we cannot, I hope, put ourselves in the position where we're going to say we're going to take zero risk with terrorism or crime. Because as country that says we're going to take no risks with security defines itself as a police state.
MARTIN: Final change I want to talk about with you; the president says the NSA can't spy on America's friends anymore, at least those heads of governments, unless there's a really good compelling reason that it pertains to a national security threat. Is that a substantive change or more of a political move to assuage concerns of U.S. allies?
BRENNER: You know, intelligence agencies make a living by stealing secrets, and they do it by breaking the laws of other countries. This is the nature of the business. There's no point sugarcoating it. And people do it to us. We're not living in Mr. Roger's neighborhood here. But as the world, both economically and socially, becomes more globalized and as we become really close, politically and socially, to other countries, they're going to expect us to obey their laws and vice versa. That's the position we're in right now. We're negotiating our way through a new world in which collection on the leaders of close allies is just not going to be worth the trouble. It's just counterproductive. There's not a question of manners. It's not a question of ethics. This is a question of political reality.
MARTIN: Finally, big picture question. What's the bigger lesson? Is there one?
BRENNER: Well, I think one of the lessons is I think we're in a world where our personal business and governmental lives are transparent to an astonishing degree. The president's quite right when he said the world's changed with dizzying speed, and that understanding that very little can be kept secret anymore, and that that which can be kept secret won't stay secret for very long is a critical adjustment that the government has not really fully absorbed.
MARTIN: Joel Brenner. He's the former inspector general of the NSA. He talked to us in our studios here in Washington. Mr. Brenner, thanks so much.
BRENNER: Pleasure to be here, as always.