Open thread: President to announce “major reforms” of NSA
posted at 10:41 am on January 17, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
Earlier today I offered my thoughts on what constitutes a “major reform,” but at 11 am ET, Barack Obama will offer his. The speech will attempt to close out what has become a major embarrassment for the White House, the Edward Snowden exposure of not just the phone metadata collection and use under Section 215, but also exposure of legitimate intelligence efforts. Former NSA Director Michael Hayden, who ran the programs during the Bush administration, claimed today that Snowden “misshaped the debate“:
Hayden offered considerable skepticism about whether this is reform at all:
Edward Snowden’s major revelations about invasive U.S. surveillance programs have caused “serious, irreversible harm” to the way the National Security Agency protects the country against foreign threats, former NSA director Michael Hayden said Friday.
“People around the world now know more about the American intelligence process than they know about their own intelligence processes. That’s not good for civil liberties or for security,” Hayden told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie.
Hayden spoke just hours before President Obama was to propose reforms to NSA policies involving the agency’s ability to store phone data from millions of Americas. The proposals are an effort to boost the country’s trust in the agency and in how the government can balance protecting national security with concerns about personal privacy.
Hayden said most of the changes are “a little bit more than window dressing,” although he expressed concern over one element that would require NSA to get approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before acting on certain data involving foreign nationals.
He told the Morning Joe crew that he expects business as usual at NSA:
“I think what we are going to see in the speech, Joe, is all of the language in the speech kind of fading left about transformation and transparency and checks and balances, but, frankly, I think the substance of the speech is going to be holding his ground,” Hayden told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough based on news reports of what Obama will unveil on Friday.
“I don’t know that American intelligence agencies are going to be doing a whole lot of things different in a week, a month, or a year than what they are doing right now,” Hayden continued.
The big mission for Obama today, Hayden suggests, is to be “reassuring” about the NSA and its surveillance programs. Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan offer five questions that will determine the success or failure of today’s speech, especially whether Obama apologizes for NSA overreach:
2. Does Obama say “sorry” (or something like it)?
Obama has spent most of his time since the revelations about the extent of the NSA’s spying programs defending their necessity — although it’s clear he has evolved from his forceful insistence in June 2013 of the necessity of what the government was doing. But, Obama has never said he was sorry for not better informing the public of at least some of the information that was being gathered. It seems unlikely, given what we know about the speech, that Obama will choose now to offer a broad apology — particularly when you consider that people like New York Rep. Pete King have already scolded the president for “being defensive” about what the NSA does.
Cillizza and Sullivan both expect the actual changes to be minimal:
4. Are privacy advocates/liberals in the Senate placated?
The answer to this one seems likely to be “no.” Again, nothing we have seen in the early readouts of the speech suggest that Obama plans to drastically alter the information gathering apparatus in place.
Marc Ambinder thinks this will impact Obama’s legacy, but also doesn’t see much potential for substantive change:
I tend not to see every presidential policy speech as legacy-defining, but Friday’s speech might just fit the bill. Obama has used his second term to review and claw back the advancing national security state that he endorsed and expanded when he took office. I’ve written this before, but he really does not want to be known as the president who enshrined indefinite detention of terrorism suspects into law, or who abused the state secrets privilege, or who allowed the surveillance state to run amok. Geoffrey Stone, a law school colleague of Obama’s who also served on his intelligence review panel, told me a long time ago that Obama, in his core, viewed himself as a champion of civil liberties and would be disappointed in himself if he did not leave a legacy of having advanced the ball down the field. To put it another way, Obama does care whether Americans perceive him to be a defender of their liberties.
Obama also cares about world opinion. In much the same way, although not to the degree, that George W. Bush did not want Muslims around the world to see themselves as the objects of his war on terrorism, Obama does not want the average person in the developing world to see himself as a legitimate target of American surveillance. If Obama changes the rules about targeting foreigners, he’ll do so not because he believes that non-Americans deserve the same protections as Americans, but because he believes that it is not in America’s interests for the average person around the world to be afraid of, or to have a reason to distrust, America and its actions.
He will focus, I think, on the puzzle of metadata. Its collection can be incredibly valuable, but its analysis can be incredibly, potentially harmful. Metadata will always be produced by everything we do. We are walking emitters. Obama will not do anything to fundamentally constrain the NSA’s ability to collect and analyze the metadata it needs to in order to fulfill the core intelligence requirements that the executive branch sends down. That’s a hard line.
That’s pretty much the ballgame from the early White House leaks of the “reform,” too. Obama will probably punt the identity of the ownership of the telecom database to Congress, but that data will still be collected, and NSA will still have access to it. That’s less of a reform than it is a tweak, and Obama may speak for quite a while on his love of civil liberties to distract people from that fact.
We’ll see. And we’ll also see whether he tosses any rhetorical bones to Edward Snowden. I’d call that extremely unlikely, but if Obama wants to distract from the small-ball approach to reform, an offer of amnesty to Snowden would certainly succeed.