Press Corps Fails To Ask Any NSA Questions At Obama’s NSA Press Conference

The White House Press Corps just completely botched the one opportunity we had to learn details about the National Security Agency’s spying program, and the rationale for sweeping government surveillance. During the hour-long press conference President Obama held specifically to answer questions about the NSA, not a single journalist asked him details about the NSA. As a result, we learned precisely zero information from something slated to be critically informative.

What did they ask about ?

  • Republicans trying to reverse Obamacare: CHECK!
  • Speculation about presidential economic appointees: CHECK!
  • Obama’s relationship with Putin: CHECK!

(Full transcript from the Washington Post here)

The Press Corps, dominated by TV broadcasters dependent on ratings from the gossipy machinations of politics, just ditched its obligation to inform the American people.

Let’s review:

Today, President Obama held a last-minute press conference to announce 4 vague reforms to the intelligence community. We have more details here, but essentially, it boils down to  1) a new independent NSA review board that will publish recommendations on protecting civil liberties 2) a new website detailing the surveillance activities 3) changes to the Patriot Act authorizing the spying, and 4) a new public advocate to argue cases in the secret court that grants the NSA spying requests.

After the announcements, Obama opened himself up to questions. Because no one asked any details about the NSA, Here’s what we still don’t know:

1). Do foreign governments swap information with one another to skirt spying laws? British spy agencies reportedly tap the undersea cables used to carry Internet data and share it with the NSA. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) may forbid American agencies from collecting information on domestic targets, but we have no idea whether Britain’s equivalent, the GCHQ, is listening in on American phone calls abroad or watching their Internet behavior (then sharing it with US agents).

2). Have the NSA programs ever actually stopped an attack? A new NSA report [PDF] released today defending its practices notes that surveillance practices helped stop Najibullah Zazi from bombing the New York City Subway. But, as Ben Smith from BuzzFeed argues, it’s likely the first tip came from local police officers, who discovered evidence from a hard-drive of a co-conspirator, collected during the course of normal policy work. Will this new agency have to prove that the programs have ever been useful?

Senator Ron Wyden, who has seen the intelligence reports, likewise does not think they’ve been effective.

“As far as we can see, all of the useful information that it has provided appears to have also been available through other collection methods,” he wrote in a letter.

3). Why is it OK to monitor activity, even if it’s not read? The NSA reportedly keeps data for 5 years. More importantly, it looks at the communications of anyone who is “3 hops” from a suspect (a friend of a friend of a friend). The average person is 3 degrees away from millions of people, which effectively allows the NSA to spy on anyone adult they want. Simply holding the data may be ripe for abuse.

In fairness, Chuck Todd of MSNBC did ask about whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama replied, “No, I do not think Mr. Snowden is a patriot.” It’s an important question, if only symbolically, since the U.S. will be seeking legal action regardless of how Obama talks about Snowden.

This was the Press’ opportunity to hold Obama’s feet to the fire and get specifics. Instead, we got to rehash some old debates and speculate about the future. I hate to criticize a fellow journalist. Within their respective fields, the White House Press Corps is quite knowledgeable.

But, broadcast reporters and their incessant need to perpetuate political entertainment television failed the American people today. Today, I’m ashamed of the press. We all should be.