Contrary to what the critics had already prejudged his speech to be, President Obama offered the first steps in real change to the NSA, and a major change in course from days of George W. Bush.
The president laid out the history of the NSA, and its importance to fighting terrorism. President Obama said surveillance technology is evolving much faster than our laws. The president said he has maintained a healthy skepticism about intelligence gathering, since he took office. He discussed the changes he already made, but said that he didn’t stop the programs wholesale because the intelligence community hasn’t sought to violate the law and privacy of ordinary people. The president said, “They’re not abusing authority to listen to your phone calls or read your private emails.”
Obama said elected officeholders have a responsibility to the Constitution. Obama refused to talk much about Edward Snowden, but he did say, “The sensational way that these disclosures have come out have shed more heat than light.”
The president called out other countries who feigned surprise over the Snowden revelations for doing their own spying on the United States government. Obama also pointed out that threats to privacy don’t come from government alone. Private corporations are also collecting data one every American, but the standards for government surveillance must be higher. He said the basic values of the American people converge a lot more than the crude characterizations that have emerged over the last several months.
Obama said he would not be where he is today, “without the courage of dissidents like Dr. King who were spied on by their own government, and as president, a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I am also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.”
The big changes that the president announced declassification of 40 FISA opinions and reviews, he also directed the Director of National Intelligence to annually review FISA opinions for declassification. He called on Congress to establish a panel of outside advocates that will have a voice that will be able to address the FISA court before it rules. Obama also announced changes in the use of national security letters so that the secrecy will not be indefinite. It will terminate at a fixed time. The telecoms will be able to make public the requests from data from the government.
The president again explained that the government is not listening to your phone calls. The data collected is the phone number, date, and length of time of the call. The president also announced that the government will no longer keep or hold on to bulk data indefinitely.
President Obama said the critics were right to point out that the bulk telephone collection program could lead to great abuses, and that it has never been publicly discussed. The president announced the winding down and ending of the bulk telephone data collection program. He said the transition will involve two steps, and that the database can only be queried in the case of crisis.
In my view much of the criticism of President Obama’s NSA speech lacks credibility because they had decided that the speech was ineffective and not enough before he even delivered it. Those who believe the paranoid propaganda ginned up by certain pseudo journalists for profit, media attention and personal gain had already decided that Obama’s speech was a failure before they even heard it.
The reality is that this speech was significant because it is a continued move away from George W. Bush’s anything goes NSA. When assessing Obama’s speech, it is important to realize where this issue was and where the president is trying to take us. The ideal outcome here would be the repeal of that scourge on personal liberty known as the Patriot Act, and that can’t happen without Congress. By the measurement of walking the line between intelligence collection and protecting the privacy of the American people, Obama did well.
Politically, the president is going to take the heat from all sides on this issue. The neo-cons are going to howl that he has jeopardized national security by making any changes to intelligence collection. The zealots on the other side are going to scream that the president only offered cosmetic alterations, not real change. Neither of these extremes would have been satisfied with any moderate course that the president chose.
George W. Bush and the cowardly Congress who gave him a rubber stamp authority obliterated the line. Barack Obama is trying to put it back. What the president announced today were just the first steps in real change, but they are important. They represent a change in course from where the country was.
The pressure needs to be turned up on Congress to let this program die in March. Complete victory will achieved when the Patriot Act is no more, but President Obama did well to at least get us pointed back in the right direction.