The Obama Administration’s Frustrating NSA Week

While Congress and the nation at large have done little except talk and embark on preliminary legal skirmishes regarding the United States’ mass surveillance practices, the forces in favor of reform and change had a decent week. The Obama administration did not.

The president’s speech one week ago on proposed changes to NSA practices was met with skepticism. A sample headline detailing the response: “Jon Stewart skewers Obama’s vague, rambling NSA speech.” The Post was sedate but firm: “Obama goal for quick revamp of NSA program may be unworkable, some U.S. officials fear.”

If the president had hoped that his reform proposals — including mild curtailment of the phone metadata program, some sort of protection for the privacy of foreign citizens and the like — would placate those opposed to the NSA, he was certainly disappointed.

Praise could be found for the president, but in the form of a backhanded compliment. Republican Rep. Peter King was content with the speech, because it didn’t seem to propose meaningful change:

“I didn’t think any changes were called for, any so-called reforms, but the fact is the ones that the President made today are really minimal. […] So long as the NSA can move quickly to protect us against plots, that’s all that is necessary: That the data is there, and the NSA is able to move quickly.” 

Impressive accolades. When the forces arrayed against change think you are doing fine, you aren’t pushing for much change.

Also this week the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board lit into the NSA’s bulk collection program, saying that it lacked firm legal footing. The White House was left to somewhat lamely argue that it “simply disagree[s] with the board’s analysis on the legality of the program.”

The group also attacked the key reason for keeping the program: Its efficacy. The group’s report contained the following, as the Washington Post quoted:

“We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation. Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

This week Russia announced that it would not expel Edward Snowden, and that the choice to leave would be his to make. So, if the administration had hoped that the clock would run out, sending Snowden back into its hands by default, those hopes have been largely dashed.

A group of self-described “US researchers in cryptography and information security” released an open letter in opposition mass surveillance today. A sample:

Indiscriminate collection, storage, and processing of unprecedented amounts of personal information chill free speech and invite many types of abuse, ranging from mission creep to identity theft. These are not hypothetical problems; they have occurred many times in the past.

And finally, earlier this Friday the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning the NSA’s bulk data programs in Constitutional terms. The resolution called for Republicans to investigate the NSA, forming a new committee. It was strongly worded, and somewhat surprising, coming from the party of the former President who set up much of what we are now talking about shutting down.

There was more, but that is a representative sample from the week.

Nothing may still happen. We can’t say that it won’t, but as time passes it increasingly seems that at least moderate change is feasible.

In the immediate aftermath of the early Snowden leaks, even that seemed far out of reach.

Top Image Credit: Flickr