Obama spoke on the NSA’s unwarranted spying activities in a much awaited speech and left the world hanging in vague promises of restructuring and reform.
On January 15, we covered the scope and expectations that were attached to President Obama’s upcoming speech on the NSA’s surveillance activities. Punctual as always, President Obama made the speech and here we are with the sugar-free version!
President Obama chose to steer clear of any commitments or retrenchments in this speech last Friday. As the 44th president of the USA, Barack Obama addressed the world’s concerns regarding the NSA on his wife’s birthday (January 17) and chose to play it safe.
As is the norm in all of America’s security related debates and speeches, the President made sure he referenced World War Two, 9/11 and Al-Qaeda multiple times before moving on to talk about the issue at hand: the NSA’s unmonitored and unwarranted surveillance.
President Obama admitted the ‘potential for abuse’ that has cropped as a result of the shift of priority from intelligence gathering to data collection. The president was careful to admit the need for secrecy in intelligence gathering and openly chose to leave out room for further debate on the issue.
After a lot of mumbo-jumbo on the need to use technology for defense and the challenge of managing technological supremacy, the President finally reached the part that we had been waiting for:
“What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale – not only because I felt that they made us more secure; but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens”.
“What I did not know at the time is that within weeks of my speech, an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures would spark controversies at home and abroad that have continued to this day”.
After which he then proceeded to trash Edward Snowden, his actions and his motivations. The president insisted that reforms are necessary because meeting the challenge of terrorism (and all its kinds) demands it and that doing so would help sustain the people’s trust in the government. I wonder if President Obama would have suggested these reforms if the Snowden revelations had not served as the catalyst for change.
The president’s speech was drenched in hypocrisy and left privacy advocates at square one. At one end, President Obama calls himself the good guy with the capability of intercepting digital communication. In his words:
“We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications”
“We know that the intelligence services of other countries – including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures – are constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations, intercept our emails, or compromise our systems”.
The President probably thought naming names would soften public sentiment against the NSA. He tried roping in corporate giants:
“Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes; that’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone”.
The ‘Change’ to Expect in the Future
Change was the President Obama’s one-word slogan during his election campaign, but no sign of actual change came about up until half way into the speech. After half the speech had gone by, the President finally came to the part we had been waiting for: what will happen now?
The president has approved of a new presidential directive for America’s signals intelligence activities – both local and foreign. Stripping off the sugar-coat, this directive will require the government to review intelligence collection targets annually. The directive also asserts that intelligence gathering agencies have to give more attention to the relationship that America has with the target before launching a surveillance campaign.
In addition, President Obama has promised more transparency in surveillance activities so keep your fingers crossed but don’t bet on it just yet. The responsibility for most of the reform process was passed on to the Director of National Intelligence to execute the directives in consultation with the Attorney General and the Congress. After giving out instructions on the execution of reforms (and leaving the public hanging yet again), the President continued to address the issue of the bulk collection of telephone records.
The President brought the public back to 9/11 (milking off the local propaganda machine) and insisted that the records were not recordings but only meta-data (phone numbers and call-lengths) that were necessary for national security. Quite surprisingly, President Obama made his first presidential order in the entire speech at this point and directed the dissolving of the bulk meta-data collection program. In doing so, the President called for the development of a mechanism that we can expect to come forth in the near future in the form of a new data collection program. Brace yourself fellow privacy advocates!
At the international level, the president pretty much said that the NSA will continue to do whatever it pleases but will conceal spying activities better in the future. The President chose to encourage trust building reforms with the people but the retrenchment that the people wanted to hear did not follow.
President Obama proposed a number of reforms in his speech and talked about all he had done to revise the country’s intelligence gathering policies after taking office.
How bad is it really? In a speech that was meant to address the people’s concerns about the NSA, the President referred to the NSA only seven times. President Obama gave a great speech and played with sentiment and history like a lawyer from Boston Legal. But at the end of the day, we are not amused Mr. President.