The Spectacle Blog

On NSA, Obama Spends an Hour Saying Nothing

By on 1.17.14 | 3:04PM

In his speech today on the NSA, Obama outlined the “concrete and substantial reforms” he formulated after consulting “an outside review group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.”

If you dozed off during the almost hour-long speech, here are some highlights:

  1. Obama will review decisions about intelligence priorities annually and his national security team will “scrutinize” the review.
  2. His Director of National Intelligence will annually review “any future opinions of the [FISA] Court.”
  3. He asked the attorney general to place more restrictions on how government accesses NSA information.
  4. He asked the Attorney General “to amend how we use National Security Letters” in order that government secrecy will be brief, “unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.”

And how will this be done? "In two steps”:

  1. Obama will only pursue phone calls “two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three” and “the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.”
  2. Then, the attorney general will develop a new approach or alternative approaches to how the metadata is stored and how it will be accessed. All this will be done by the magical date of March 28.

Obama mentioned possibly moving the metadata into the private sector, but explained it was “complicated.” (The telecom companies would certainly agree.) Thus, the attorney general and these third-party review groups are the ones in charge of actually coming up with a plan.

Questions abound. Who makes up this “national security team”? What will these “annual reviews” really do? How will the “more restrictions” go into place? Could you give a few examples of how “these efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives”?

What constitutes a “true emergency”? Who decides if it is an emergency? Are two steps really any better than three when it comes to invasive surveillance?

Despite Obama’s claim that he was “focusing on facts and specifics” to provide “some clear direction for change,” right now we don’t know what any of these plans will effectively do.

Sen. Rand Paul couldn’t agree more. In his public statement released after the speech, Paul said: “I am disappointed in the details” and “The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house.”

Repeatedly, Obama claimed he realized “the risks of government overreach” and “the danger of government overreach” and the “potential for abuse” and history’s examples of “when that trust has been breached.” He beat us over the head with his acknowledgement that “our liberty cannot depend of the good intentions of those in power” and how he needs a plan to keep us safe “while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections…[Americans] require.”

He bended his knee to the Constitution while simultaneously courting undefined ambiguities.

Take a look at what the New York Times reported yesterday:

The Justice Department will significantly expand its definition of racial profiling to prohibit federal agents from considering religion, national origin, gender and sexual orientation in their investigations, a government official said Wednesday.

So now the NSA can track your phone calls and emails and store them in a vast vault of cyberdata that may be owned by a nameless third-party group carefully reviewed annually by a faceless outside panel, but federal agents are emphatically prohibited from being wary of Muslim men?

Yes, intelligence is a necessary facet of government’s duty to protect “ordinary citizens” in America. But we need more than a leisurely walk through history to calm our nerves about the dangers of what our government can do when armed with this kind of technological power.

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