What Happened to Obama’s NSA Reforms?

Two months ago, the President embraced limited reforms to domestic spying. So far, he's produced limited results.

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President Barack Obama answers questions during a press conference in the East Room of the White House August 9, 2013 in Washington.

Early in August, before Middle Eastern dramas from Egypt to Syria to Iran began consuming the White House, Barack Obama’s biggest headache was the bipartisan furor over government surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency. At an August 9 press conference, the president sought to assuage public discontent with a series of promises about coming reforms and new transparency for the NSA’s activities. Given the secrecy and confusion, Obama said, it was time to “put the whole elephant out there.”

Nearly two months later the safari continues, with the elephant still mostly obscured in the bushes. Many details of the NSA’s programs remain opaque, and Obama has publicly proposed no major reforms. But as Congress gets ready to take action of its own—and with a new oversight board due to issue its first interim report later this month—the issue is returning to the fore. And while Obama has taken some action, his top intelligence officials continue to urge Congress not to place new limits on their surveillance powers.

Obama made four promises in his August news conference, all of which are still works in progress. The first two were pledges to work with Congress to modify the how the government goes about collecting electronic communications.

Obama said he would support more oversight, transparency, and “constraints” on the use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows for the bulk collection and storage of domestic telephone records. Obama also said he wants to increase public confidence in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body which approves secret government surveillance requests. Specifically, Obama endorsed adding an “adversary” to FISC proceedings who would assert privacy and civil liberties concerns against the government lawyers who now ask the court for surveillance powers without being challenged before the judges.

Behind the scenes, administration officials are talking to key members of Congress about legislative steps, although the White House has not yet publicly endorsed any specific measures. And Obama’s vague call to modify Section 215 almost is unlikely to involve his support for a bill that would end bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Obama’s third promise was to make the surveillance programs more transparent. “I’ve directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible,” Obama said. Here he has made some tangible progress. That day the administration released declassified legal documents describing the legal rational for its collection of bulk phone records, although critics said the documents offered little new information. The Director of National Intelligence also created a Tumblr page that features, among other things, several declassified FISC orders and opinions. (The national security law blog Lawfare also has a comprehensive list of declassified documents related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.) Obama also assured that the NSA would hire a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, a job opening the agency recently posted, calling it a “completely new role” at the agency.

Despite all the released documents, administration officials are still “refusing to answer very important questions,” says Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. Intelligence officials still decline to answer basic questions like how many Americans are affected by their surveillance programs and whether the NSA collects other data about American citizens like financial records. (The administration says the question of how many Americans are affected is not possible to answer in specific numbers.) At a hearing last month, NSA chief Keith Alexander wouldn’t confirm reports that the NSA has used cellphone signal data to track the location of Americans—although the NSA later admitted had received samples of such data for testing purposes only in 2010 and 2011.

“The president said we need to put the whole elephant out there. That absolutely has not happened,” says Richardson.

Finally, Obama promised in August to create a new independent panel to review the government’s surveillance activities. The panel would “consider how we can maintain the trust of the people [and] how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used,” Obama  said. The 60-day deadline Obama set for the panel’s first report arrives in late October. Obama would be hard-pressed to ignore strong recommendations for real reform.

But the extent of the panel’s independence is dubious. A recent AP report charged that it “has effectively been operating as an arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA and all other U.S. spy efforts.” The panel’s meetings have been closed to the public. And its membership consists of figures friendly to the intelligence community, or the president, or both. Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-blogger who has published numerous leaked documents from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden calls the panel as “a total farce.” Other civil liberties advocates doubt that its final recommendations, due by Dec. 15, will propose real change.

That may be fine with Obama, who seems more worried about public alarm over government snooping than the surveillance itself. “When Obama speaks about the program, he leaves the impression that its existing privacy protections are sufficient, if only we knew enough to appreciate them,” Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, recently wrote in Politico. The point of revealing the elephant isn’t to tie it down, but to assure people that it’s not Godzilla. The coming fight in Congress will show whether Obama’s response has been sufficient—or whether it’s too little and too late to stop the backlash against government surveillance.

Correction and clarification: This post has been changed to reflect that President Obama did mention the NSA’s creation of a civil liberties and privacy officer in his August 9 remarks, and that the independent panel’s 60-day deadline will arrive in late October, not next week. Also, while Keith Alexander declined to say last month whether the government collects cellphone locational data, as first written, the NSA has since disclosed that it did receive some samples of that in 2010 and 2011 for testing purposes.

MORE: The Surveillance Society

28 comments
TomSanders
TomSanders

Obama is a lying scumbag period.

azmalhome
azmalhome

Obama is chit-er, mostly time he speaks untruth about Islamic alien policy, why he's dumb like a fool about Bangladesh political crisis.where are already killed most thousand more people into 6 month.  http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/

Duckworks
Duckworks

Americans evidently did not notice that Obama's billion dollar campaign was backed, in large part, by huge donations from media-telecom and IT companies. These entities do not want to see the multibillion dollar NSA porkbarrel and gravy train of servers, software and IT support contracts come to an end. Collecting metadata on your daughter's texts about New Direction isn't going to catch the next Tsarnaev brothers, but it is keeping tens of thousands of government workers and private sector contractors in jobs, and contracts going. And your President voted to renew Bush II's awful Patriot Act. The Obama Administration is also the most opaque in America since Richard Nixon. Google "Wikileaks"+:TPP" to see what other secrets your leader is keeping from you. The reality is that Americans voted for Obama-Biden, and have to live with the consequences. And the mainstream media, which pumped millions into the Obama-Biden campaign, runs the propaganda effort.

anti-government
anti-government

Like all recent American Presidents, Mr. Obama, frustrated with the power of Congress over domestic affairs, has turned to foreign policy as the way to mark his territory in the world. The way Presidents do this is by throwing their weight (actually, it's OUR weight, but never mind) around...using violence or threats of violence to advance perceived US interests. Unfortunately, that requires that we support a giant "defense" industry and pay for constant wars. Reform the NSA instead of using it to try to run the world? Not likely! Very few postwar Presidents have been able to resist being a big man in the war business. The only counter-example I can think of was Bill Clinton, whose administration also saw America at its peak of prosperity.  Let's stop wasting all our childrens' money trying to run the world! There are good reasons to change our policies:

1. We aren't strong enough to conquer the world;

2. We can't afford it; and

3. Like Imperial Rome, we are ruining our middle class chasing world power in the interests of the ultra-rich.

anti-government
anti-government

Epitaph of Obama as President:

Not a liberal.

Not a conservative.

Just another guy who talks big and does nothing to effect meaningful change.

JBSmith
JBSmith

Read "A Note on Uberveillance" by M. D. Michael. Newport News and Virginia State Police had Dr. Lawrence Chang implant me w/o my knowledge and consent with a biochip. It enables torture. They use it as a sensor and pulse energy projectiles at you. It enables voice to skull communication. See LRAD white papers or audio spotlight by Holosonics. See Safeguards in a World of Ambient Intelligence by Springer page 9. See Mental Health and Terrorism by Amin Gadit. See Bio Initiative Report 2012. Go to Forbes and search Brandon Raub. Law enforcement tases citizens into "excited delirium" (nij.org) to make them act out. I believe they are directly responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre. All the mass shootings are the work of cops. They want to take away your right to bear arms. People aren’t suddenly going crazy, they're being tortured. I also believe the biochip to be responsible for PTSD. Read Brian Castner's book "A Long Walk". I have the same ambiguous pains, twitches, heart attack, night mares, day mares, gurgling, etc. I never served in the war. What do we have in common? The biochip. Suicide is one way to get relief. Virginia’s suicide rate is higher than the national average and the military suicide rate is unacceptable!

Yoshi
Yoshi

Bear in mind the he's "really good at killing people" with drones, as well, so watch what you say.

anti-government
anti-government

ALL modern Presidents become foreign policy power trippers because the Constitution constrains Presidential action in domestic affairs. If a President wants to leave his mark on something (and they all do) it tends to be external to the USA because the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution frequently lead to deadlock and inaction. Modern Presidents disguise what they are doing in high sounding phrases like "defending freedom" or "keeping intact the powers of the Presidency", but what they are really doing is marking their territory, much like a male dog marks his territory.

Government power has increased at an alarming rate in America in the past 100 years. In 1913, neither the federal nor any state government required that anyone walking down the street had any form of identification, and most people didn't have any ID. Neither the US government nor any state government spied on anyone, US citizen or foreigner. No licenses were required for guns, dogs, cats, etc. In some places, there was still free land (due to the Homestead Act) on which it was possible to eke out a living without any government help or hindrance. There was no federal income tax.

Of course many things were worse in 1913 than they are today. Women and people of color have far more rights that are respected today than in most places in 1913. Foods and drugs are far less contaminated today than they were in 1913. We have better medicine and more humane laws. There is more regulation of environmental issues today. Even so, probably no white man in the middle class or above in America in 1913 would trade places with his counterpart in 2013 because we are so much less free than the prosperous white males of 1913.

artvet2
artvet2

Simply another Obama lie, with reality spun by his apologists in the press.

JohnMalverne
JohnMalverne

You are aware that in 2011 Obama had all domestic spying restrictions lifted from the NSA, allowing them to spy on Americans, yes?  You make it sound like he has nothing to do with what goes on in his administration.

He could end it tomorrow.  But instead, he wants the government to spy on you even more than they already do.

RicardoRivera
RicardoRivera

First of all this writer is misinterpreting the president words. He said we already have safeguards and if the secret court finds any new reforms than he will implement. Don't be taking Snowden stance in assuming we already didn't have safeguards or abuse is rampant. People will always have an issue with this no matter how many reforms we do in the end it's about intent and using our resources to defend our freedoms. Fringe thinkers always think the government is the boogie man so are we going to always take the time to please them when that's an impossible feat...

surfdog
surfdog

The President is busy getting to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi. 

Hoover
Hoover

Obama is being blackmailed.... Just take a close look at him.

Dachman
Dachman

Where are all of the Obama supporters?

Sabrina45959310
Sabrina45959310

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reallife
reallife

"So far, he's produced limited results."

no kidding! what did you expect?

par for the course



JasonBao
JasonBao

@anti-government I agree with you  ,you are right ,but we hope your country turns good soon, and lead the world to ultra-rich.

#libtardedamerica
#libtardedamerica

@anti-government

alternate epitaph:

not qualified.

not competent.

just a guy who was able to play off the collective idiocy of the libtarded american masses and get black people to vote

IanBortner
IanBortner

@RicardoRivera So it is impossible for governments to abuse their power or to become dictatorial?  Do you consider mass government spying on its own citizens to be a good thing?  How is any of this "defending our freedoms?"

anti-government
anti-government

@#libtardedamerica You sound like a racist. Obama played off the disasters of the Bush administration, the absolute worst administration in the history of the USA.

#libtardedamerica
#libtardedamerica

@IanBortner

he's an idiot who is of the opinion that everything obama says is the word of god because he's too stupid to think for himself and not believe what the media tells him to

qwertypup
qwertypup

@#libtardedamerica @IanBortner calm down silly marshmallow. he posted his opinion, so instead of calling him an idiot for it, just explain to him why you think it's wrong. Discussing ideas is a lot better than attacking other people for theirs

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