You might think that in the sixth year of his presidency, Barack Obama would no longer be blaming George Bush for everything that is wrong in the world. And you’d be wrong, as he proved in another tiresome speech this morning.
For about fifty minutes, Obama droned on, telling us how he would use his administrative powers (and possibly work with Congress) to “reform” the intelligence gathering activities of the NSA and, presumably, the rest of the intelligence community. He began by lecturing us (for those who didn’t pay attention in fourth grade or see the Disney movie about “Johnny Tremain,” Paul Revere and the “Sons of Liberty”) about the history of American intelligence gathering. Most important to him, Obama told us that the “worst abuses” occurred before he became president.
As a senator, he reminded us, he opposed “warrantless wiretapping,” and told us that the Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques” which, he said, contradicted our values. (The EITs, for those who forget too quickly, were outrages such as slaps to the face, and which — according to George Tenet’s memoir — produced more valuable intelligence than all the rest of the intelligence community’s efforts combined.) And he reminded us that he might not be president but for the sacrifices of those such as Martin Luther King who were spied on by their government.
So how does Obama want to correct the NSA’s abuses of its authority — either real or imagined in the media frenzy surrounding the Snowden leaks — to satisfy the world? Well, he really doesn’t know.
Obama defended the NSA’s “PRISM” program, the one that collects the “metadata” on just about every telephone call made or coming into America, and a lot more as well. He based his defense of it on one phone call made by one of the 9/11 hijackers: “One of the 9/11 hijackers — Khalid al-Mihdhar — made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States.”
Someday, somehow, Obama said, the metadata program could lead to the thwarting of a major terrorist plot. That is obviously true. But it is equally true — and we know this from the many published statements of those such as former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell — that the PRISM program has not led to the capture of a single terrorist or the thwarting of a single terrorist plot.
It’s not enough to say that the program might someday work in order to justify continuing it. (That’s akin to the statement by Mitt Romney in 2012 that the way to judge the worth of a federal program is to weigh whether it’s worth borrowing from the Chinese to pay for it.)
Right now, the NSA uses a rule that allows the metadata to be collected and searched to “three jumps.” If a suspected terrorism-related telephone number calls another number, that’s a number to be searched. But if the called number calls another number, that’s a jump. The NSA will go as far as three “jumps” to from the terrorism-related number to the caller, those people the caller calls or is called by, and so on. If you’re in that fourth degree of separation and an unknown cousin of your long-hated brother-in-law once misdialed Anwar al-Awlaki’s number Yemen, you’re sure to be in the NSA’s bag.
Obama wants to reduce the NSA to two jumps. He’s also going to modify some procedures and rules that NSA works by and develop what he calls new processes to get the same intelligence value from the same data. In short, more bureaucracy, more “walls” and more hoops for the intel guys to have to jump through. It will cost more, not less, to do that.
The simplest proof is to rely on the oldest proven theory of government, that more bureaucracy means less time is spent on productive work. Less time will then be spent on real intelligence gathering and analysis. What Obama is doing is the same sort of thing Congress did in creating the Director of National Intelligence after 9/11. He’s going to make things worse, not better.
In another example of that, he is going to construct more obstacles to the search and use of data gathered on foreign citizens, affording them a lot of the protections that are provided to Americans under the law. This is directly contrary to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which devised a system of lesser, not greater, protections for foreigners. Congress, as ineffective as ever, can allow this at the peril to the Constitution. If that weren’t enough, in intel terms, it’s a lousy idea.
And that goes for his idea of “reforming” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. His idea of disclosing more of the Court’s opinions is a good one, but he’s also is going to establish a panel of experts to provide public views to the FISC in complex cases involving personal privacy.
Obama said that he’s received competing suggestions on how to reform the metadata, such as having the telephone companies hold the data instead of giving it all to the government. But he doesn’t want to decide which, because that might lead to a level of responsibility he wants to avoid. He’s telling his guys to come back with recommendations in March to combine the recommendations to something that will work. Right.
And there’s more. Obama wants to assure foreign governments that he’s going to protect their privacy as well. Angela Merkel, among other leaders of our allies, was outraged that NSA was apparently tapping her cell phone. But she is certainly among those government leaders — mentioned by Obama — that are spying on us to the best of their ability. Obama seemed to say that we’d stop doing that — even for foreign citizens who aren’t national leaders. But he wisely left himself an out: he will allow such espionage — as he damned well must — where there is a national security justification.
There are a lot of other options he said he’d implement with or without Congress. And there’s the rub. This president has signed more than ten times the number of executive orders than any of his predecessors. Congress has the duty of preserving the Constitution and the separation of powers but for six years it has failed to do so. It’s time it reasserted itself to do so, and to limit what abuses of power are within Obama’s grasp. Faint hope that it will.