Obama: Spying Will Pretty Much Continue with Some Tweaks

Obama promises a lot more review but makes few immediate changes

  • Share
  • Read Later
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

President Barack Obama talks about National Security Agency surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington.

In  spy terms, the changes to the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs announced Friday by President Obama are more on the level of desk analyst drudgery than sweeping James Bondian action.

Though the Administration touted the overhaul as ground breaking, a close reading of the president’s proposals shows that most of the reforms are unlikely to reassure privacy advocates. Moreover, those changes are still under review and many will be for quite some time.

The President repeatedly underlined that the surveillance programs had great value to national security and that none of the information gathered was being abused. “The United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes, and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary people,” Obama said in the speech at the Justice Department. “Now let me be clear: our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments—as opposed to ordinary citizens—around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective.”

Bowing to public outrage, however, Obama announced some changes and a lot more studying of the problem. Will your metadata still be collected and kept for years? Yes, though the government may not have easy access to the data if all goes as planned. Will the U.S. keep spying abroad? Absolutely, but the government has made an exception for some heads of state. Will the U.S. still keep incidental information collected on Americans? Yes, but it will review how to keep that information more private. Will the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court exercise more oversight on NSA activities? Pending approval by Congress, the court will have a Congressionally-appointed panel it will have to consult on some “novel” cases—of course, all still in secret.

So what has changed? The government will still collect information about millions of telephone calls—the numbers called, the duration of the calls, but not the content. Instead of housing that information at the NSA, it will be kept elsewhere. Telephone companies have said they don’t want to be responsible for securing such a hot potato, so the government will take 60 days to study how an undetermined third party might keep the records. In the meantime, any NSA queries into the database will have to be approved by the secret FISA court. And information given out of the database will be limited to two “hops”—or degrees of separation–tracing the the links between the original caller, his contacts and their contacts. Previously the limit was three “hops”.

Obama said that some of the secrecy would, eventually, come to an end. Gag rules on companies that receive National Security Letters requiring cooperation in surveillance activities will be eased. Companies receiving the letters will, at some undetermined point, be able to reveal the existence of requests that aren’t extraordinarily sensitive.

The government also pledged that any incidental data collected about Americans in its spying abroad will be treated with more sensitivity to privacy. Any information about foreigners who aren’t terrorist suspects will be treated with the same respect.

The Administration did a review of surveillance of heads of state and while they didn’t “go down a list one by one,” said a senior Administration official in a call briefing reporters about the changes, the review did result in a “decision not to pursue surveillance on dozens of foreign leaders.” Which ones? The senior administration official couldn’t say. And, the official said, the review did not include any surveillance activities of any foreign leaders below heads of state.

Obama did not address other metadata collection programs, including those tracking e-mails, instant chats and other online communications. Those programs will be studied by John Podesta, a senior adviser to the President. What to do about them addressed at some point down the road.

Nor did the President react to calls by some to give amnesty to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor whose revelations over the past year caused the review. Snowden, who is facing charges in the U.S., has been granted temporary asylum by Russia. “Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations,” Obama said. “I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets.”

Finally, the President asked Congress to move to appoint a committee of outside privacy, civil liberties and technology experts who could consult with FISA courts on delicate cases. Of course, Congress doesn’t have to do this and given its dysfunction and disunity on the issue probably won’t have an easy or quick time doing it. Once done, what cases the committee would be consulted on are vague and indeterminate.

If all this sounds a little ambiguous and open-ended that’s because it is, and members of Congress from both parties expressed disappointment.

Obama didn’t address Arizona Senator John McCain’s call for a special select committee on NSA reform or various battling pieces of legislation in the House and Senate to overhaul the NSA. “President Obama’s speech today left many crucial questions unanswered,” McCain said in a statement.

“President Obama’s announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration,” Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement responding to the speech. “The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house.”

Democrats on the party’s left were tepid in their response to the speech. “Even if implemented in full, the President’s proposals are not the end of our efforts to reign [sic] in excessive government surveillance – they are the first steps,” said Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.

“Today’s speech by President Obama is a welcome step in the right direction, but the reforms proposed by the President are not enough,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat.

Even Obama’s allies on the Hill were non-committal. “We must give full and thoughtful consideration to the President’s actions announced today,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Still, the Administration said that Friday’s changes were ground breaking. “This is without a doubt,” a senior Administration official told reporters on the call, “the most significant reform in our surveillance systems since President Obama took office.”

26 comments
chrispy
chrispy

The greatest threat to our privacy is not the NSA - it's Google. If you use google products, then I don't want to hear you say one word about the NSA. That's what we call a hypocrite. So quit Google and get your privacy back. At least the NSA isn't going to place your photo in an advertisement. Great websites AND privacy can be found in companies such as Ravetree, DuckDuckGo, HushMail, and the list goes on. Let's promote companies like these!

TerryClifton02
TerryClifton02

According to Bill Binney a high ranking official in the NSA, says for the record that we are now in a complete police state!!! Where's the outrage from the left and the right? It's muted because the left is more concerned with getting as much free stuff from their neighbors through repressive taxation and wealth redistribution, and the right wants to blow every one else off the map through endless war after war for their buddies in the defense industry. Liberty is dead, long live liberty.  

Yoshi
Yoshi

Keep in mind that NONE of this would be happening without the acts of Mr. Snowden. I agree that these "reforms" are incremental. but it's more than we had BEFORE we knew just how far up our butts the government is. Probing and recording forever (to be used who knows how in the future).

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I have no sympathy for the "anty-spying advocates".  Why?  That's pretty simple.  The amount of data is so vast, and the government's resources are so limited, they have to focus on very specific things.  This means petty crimes that people post all the time on Facebook isn't something the federal government gives a damn about.  (Your local cops looking at facebook feeds will be more likely to care, and if you put it out there, it's YOUR FAULT.)

The thrust of NSA spying has always been to protect the nation.  That much is obvious from the intent, direction, type and actions committed by the programs.  It's not about finding out that Joe Blow buys frilly teddies to wear on the construction site.  It's not about the under-the-table payments for some home-owner hiring an illegal immigrant.  Those don't endanger American lives at all, let alone on a wholesale level.

The NSA's spying has always been about stopping terrorists.  This includes these "patriot" groups who want armed confrontation with the government.  This includes abortion clinic bombers.  This includes people who just want to kill other Americans because of irrational beliefs in myths and  legends.  It's THESE people the NSA are after.  They don't have the TIME to screw around with your tiny little life - unless you're a threat to the United States and her people.

This program has been going on for 13 years (ever since Bush ordered it to be done in October 2001 - and without judicial oversight until 2005).  People aren't disappearing off the streets.  There was no outcry about how the government had invaded our lives, until the traitor Snowden tossed in that particular hand grenade among us, appealed to the radical right (you know, the people who WILL start the next civil war) and got all the rightists in a tizzy because a leftist was president.  The point here is that no one really noticed it, leftist OR rightist, until then.  It didn't inflict demonstrable harm on anyone.  And it's been out there for more than a decade.   And while the exact numbers of attacks it's prevented may be arguable, it's not arguable that it prevented attacks against Americans.

Which was the whole point to begin with.

You have to be a special kind of person to think the NSA is even remotely interested in you.  We call them Terrorists.  They want to hurt Americans.  And I'm FINE with the government looking for them, finding them, and putting them down.  If that means "reading" everyone's e-mail or listening to every cell phone conversation in the world, great.  I would rather have my fellow Americans protesting the practice than being buried because it stopped.

Diecash1
Diecash1

Sure, sure. All that you assert will continue but the real question is this: When will you stop posting idiotic comments?

jmac
jmac

@doriangrey_grey The loudest voices in the Senate supporting this are Republicans.   It's the left wing blogs that are on your side.   A Republican Senator on the Intelligence Committee just put out a connection even I can't swallow - that Snowden was linked to Russia before he dumped.  He was definitely linked to the very left Glenn Greenwald before he dumped -  but I would doubt the Russian connection.


When the very far left holds hands with the very far right - you might want to rethink your opinion-  even if you're prone to conspiracy theories from the very far right.    

ZacPetit
ZacPetit

@chrispy No one at Google is reading your personal data. All of your account information and browsing preferences are crunched by a program somewhere that serves up content depending on its results. As for the NSA, they are only keeping metadata: the information that describes the form of the message, along with its senders and recipients... not its content. The concern with both organizations is entirely unfounded.

jmac
jmac

@chrispy And if we pay a third party to keep megadata - how safe will that be?       

jmac
jmac

@Yoshi When Snowden was spying for Bush, he said leakers should have their balls cut off.   These incremental (three degrees of separation changed to two!!) changes do not justify leaking our private business to the international community, especially details of how we spy and who we spy on  leaked to China and Europe.  


You want China up your butt?    They hack us weekly.  We're going to spy.  If you don't like it, move to China or join Snowden in Russia.  

TerryClifton02
TerryClifton02

@DeweySayenoff 

When you get done wrapping yourself around the flag, make sure you don't cut anymore oxygen off from your brain. 

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@bringphilback 

Wow, dark, ominous, spooky words.  One could take what you posted as a terrorist threat, you know.  Planning an overthrow?  Or just being a shill for a fictional mythological character?

Yoshi
Yoshi

@jmac@YoshiIt's not our spying on OTHERS that I have a problem with. It's that every electronic communication we make HERE is being recorded and stored, forever. Who gets that data in the future, and what will they do with it?

At some point in the future some official may ask; "What do we have on this guy "jmac"? Going back over several years worth of data they might find something to use against you or who knows what else? Too many dials.

Oh, and for the record, as you have observed, allegiances change.

jmac
jmac

@TerryClifton02 @DeweySayenoff Terry - the only person saying NSA is spying on them is Larry Klayman, a certified right wing nut who says NSA sent emails in his name to destroy his reputation.  A judge actually accepted his case.  That tells you something about that judge.  


And reading your rant on people getting free stuff -  you belong right there in the Larry Klayman camp.  

jason024
jason024

@DeweySayenoff@bringphilback nah..he just wants to pretend to be an internet tough guy and make threats while not having to worry that the Feds will come after him. Assuming of course they care about a lunatic in their mothers basement.

ZacPetit
ZacPetit

@jmac Snowden revealed the truth about an organization whose power was beginning to exceed their mandate. He is no traitor.

jmac
jmac

@Yoshi @jmac Didn't a judge just rule on Net Neutrality?   We have a court system and judges.  We're a nation of laws.   If you don't like the conservative judges, you change that by voting.    (


And information stored forever?   Well, we can't read about some things on Kennedy until far in the future - his wife and now his daughter stopped that).    We can't read about George Bush senior until some time in the far future - his son tied up the info.   I'll never know about  Bush Sr and his out-of-the-loop comment since he pardoned the guy he could tell us and now the information is frozen.  So be it. 


The bottom line is you're saying  SNowden is  justified in getting small changes to the FISA Court and NSA by the way he went about gathering and dumping information on our secrets to other countries -   No, I totally disagree.   He's a  traitor.   

ZacPetit
ZacPetit

@Yoshi @jmac I'm guessing you don't understand what "data" they collect. There is a difference between content and metadata, perhaps you should look into it.

TerryClifton02
TerryClifton02

@jmac@TerryClifton02@DeweySayenoff 

Go back to calling Obama a Saint. I could say basically the same thing whenever someone links Mother Jones, Slate, Salon, etc.. You're void of context because you're a drone. 

JohnNagel
JohnNagel

@DeweySayenoff ur an idiot please see above comment regarding ur earlier inane remark. also a wuss... scared of terrorists, are u? its just a control mechanism u stooge...that's why they fire hellfire missiles...to make more terrorists...so they can fire more hellfire missiles...and control us....

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@bringphilback

You do realize that the phrase "just saying" doesn't excuse boorish behaviors or ignorance.  Boorish and ignorant people use that to "soften the blow" for being an idiot.

And given the fact that most terrorism in the United States is done by those of a religious nature in the name of their invisible sky friend (or invisible friend of an invisible friend), what you posted is still quite provocative.

You've never lived in Eastern Germany while it was under the Soviets, so you have no clue what that kind of government is REALLY like.  In fact, by comparison, you should be on your knees thanking your invisible sky friends that you live in a country that LETS YOU BE AS IRRATIONAL AS YOU ARE, and openly express it to others.

Delusion, paranoia and irrationality are usually the hallmarks of extremists and terrorists.  Perhaps you didn't get that memo.  Hence my post in reply.

Besides, spiritual extortion always irritates me.  It seems to me that if your myth was real, your invisible sky friends would have a much better way of running the universe than threats of eternal suffering and torment unless you toe the ecclesiastical line.

Yeah, free will...  What a joke.

I tend to combat stupidity (eg willful ignorance) wherever I encounter it.  I didn't post your post.  You did.  It was ignorant, and vaguely threatening, without the stones to call a spade a spade like you tried to do.  If you don't like the impression you made on others, perhaps you should rephrase it in a way that DOESN'T make you sound like someone in desperate need of a straight jacket sitting in their mother's basement.

...just saying...NOT!

bringphilback
bringphilback

If you find"get right with Jesus" a threat, I'm sorry for you. But its not me you should be threatened by, but our eastern Germany like government, just saying