In a speech that was high on rhetoric but short on details (which will be made clear in sixty days), President Obama performed a balancing act between securities and individual liberties. Most tellingly, he refused comment on the NSA’s systematic undermining of the security apparatus of modern communication tools. In that sense, his speech was as notable for its admissions as its omissions.
During his speech, Obama criticized Edward Snowden, who leaked NSA secrets, and praised the dissidence of Martin Luther King Jr. In an obvious reference to Silicon Valley companies, he outlined corporate threats to privacy from “corporations that track what you buy, store, and analyze your data to use it for commercial purposes.” But, he made no reference to their recent pleas to NSA to stop spying on corporate servers.
The much-reviled phone metadata collection program, which tracks phone calls made by Americans and foreigners, is being ended “as it currently exists.” However, there are no details on the new program. During the transition period, Obama said NSA’s metadata collection program would be limited to two hops or two contacts of the suspected terrorist organization. In addition, the agency can only access the metadata database after obtaining prior approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) or in case of a “true emergency.”
The President said National Security Letters, which are used by the FBI to compel organizations to divulge details about their business activity and customers, would be timeframe-bound to ensure that “security will not be indefinite and will terminate within a fixed time.” He also said spying on foreigners and other governments would be curtailed and took the “unprecedented step” of extending American civil liberties to people overseas. But, concrete steps about this step were absent.
“The Devil Is In The Details”
“The devil is in the details,” says Cindy Cohn, legal attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that has been at the forefront of the fight against the NSA. The foundation has already filed two lawsuits challenging the NSA and organized protests and rallies against NSA surveillance.
According to her, the President’s words signaled that he did not support the Feinstein-Rogers bill. The bill, which was introduced by Rep Diane Feinstein (D-Calif) and Rep Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) last year, attempted to legitimize NSA’s phone metadata collection program. As I mentioned earlier, President Obama has ended the phone metadata collection program.
The EFF developed a scorecard to rate the President’s speech on NSA. The scorecard rated his speech on several broad and specific issues ranging from Internet Security to reforming the FISA court. President Obama scored poorly, earning only 3.5 points out of 12. But Cohn says it is the scorecard is not comprehensive because new revelations about NSA’s overreach are being divulged daily. “The President hasn’t given us a full accounting of the NSA,” she says.
However, Cohn chose to focus on the positive aspects of President Obama’s address. She pointed out that declassification of FISC opinions, a key EFF demand, is a step forward in the right direction. “Considering where we started, I would say that we snatched victory from the jaws of defeated,” she says, referring to public apathy over the revelations and the NSA’s unbending posture about its work.
A PR Stunt?
Others, however, were not so positive. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist and blogger behind the revelations, called the reforms “cosmetic” and said the reforms are “little more than a PR stunt to mollify the public.”
In a Facebook status update, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan), who co-authored a bill to curtail the NSA’s powers last year, called on the Congress to end “what the President will not end.” His reference was to “unconstitutional violation of Americans’ privacy,” “stop suspicionless surveillance of people” and “close era of secret law.”
As usual, Twitter also got in on the act. Unfortunately for the President, most tweets about his address had a negative slant. I have embedded some notable tweets below.
— Rep. Alan Grayson (@AlanGrayson) January 17, 2014
Obama: “I’m not going to dwell on Mr Snowden’s actions or his motivations.” Then he kind of dwelt on it. #NSA
— Lance Ulanoff (@LanceUlanoff) January 17, 2014
— MidwestMet (@MidWestMet) January 17, 2014