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Obama Tries to get Control of the NSA Story; Will He Succeed?

Declassifying some previously secret memos so that they can be released in redacted form hasn’t worked. (Unsurprisingly, since we already had many of them in unredacted form from Snowden.) Telling Jay Leno what everyone knew was a lie didn’t work. And of course, before that, sending the Bobbsey Generals to Congressional hearings to say “least untruthful” things didn’t work.

If public opinion on NSA surveillance is not entirely out of control yet, the narrative about it is. It does not take a Sherlock to see that that is why O gave a press conference yesterday.

Other issues were touched on (health care, immigration, gays in Russia), but the main event was clearly the President’s proposals to “reform” the surveillance. In the handy summary of commondreams, these were:

1. Discussing with Congress “appropriate” reforms to section 215 of the Patriot Act (under which phone records are collected in bulk) which will include “greater oversight, greater transparency and constraints on the use of this authority.”
2. Discussing with Congress reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). A measure that would give “civil liberties concerns” more ability to challenge government rulings.
3. The NSA appointment of a privacy and civil liberties officer.
4. The creation of an independent advisory group made up of “outside experts” who will be allowed to review the government’s surveillance activities and publish a public report within two months (60 days), and a final report by the end of the year.
5. A new website launched by the greater intelligence community meant to serve as a “hub for further transparency,” to provide interested parties with the “ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and what it doesn’t do, how it carries out its mission and why it does so.”

O also claimed that he had begun to consider these reforms even before Snowden came on the scene. Some reports on the event that are worth reading include those of the Guardian, RT, and the LA Times.

Concerning the actual merits of these proposals there is little to be said. The stress on telephony metadata collection via Section 215 treats only the first of many revelations of NSA spying revealed by Snowden to Glenn Greenwald and others, such as PRISM, XKeyscore, something called a “backdoor” that Sen. Wyden has highlighted, and the FBI’s attempt to get its own data base independent of NSA through “port reader” software to be attached to internet service providers.

To give the NSA a type of ombudsman would not in itself guarantee that the office represented the public interest as opposed to helping the agency present a facade of acting in the public interest.

“Discussing with Congress” sounds like agreeing on some softball proposals floated by centrist lawmakers at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the last day of July, such as allowing an advocate for the public to argue before the FISA Court without any assurance that the Court would take the argument seriously.

It did not help the President’s case that yesterday his administration also released a black white paper making it clear that the core function of collecting the metadata under Section 215 would remain, a pronouncement that was met with immediate disdain from the ACLU, among others.

It may be that, left to itself, Congress will go along with O’s proposals. Sen. Wyden himself issued a statement yesterday which, while expressing disappointment that O did not deal with the “backdoor” problem, nonetheless concluded by saying:

Overall, I welcome the proposals made today by the President and intend to work closely with my colleagues, including Senators Udall, Leahy, Blumenthal, Merkley and Feinstein and Reps. Sensenbrenner and Lofgren, to ensure that the president’s proposals are strengthened and become law.

On the other hand, Congress may not be left to itself. For the past two weeks the Restore The Fourth organization has been urging people to confront their representatives about the surveillance while they are home for the August recess. And if one can judge from other entries on the Reddit RT4 page, O’s performance yesterday did not go over well, as with these comments on the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the event. For example, here is SuperConductiveRabbi:

By-the-book damage control.

First they ignore the issue and hope it’ll go away. Then they acknowledge it but downplay the significance. Then they try to marginalize the petitioners and paint them as a fringe group. Then they offer empty, conciliatory promises that have the appearance of a compromise, but don’t actually address the underlying issue. Then they bow down and submit to real reforms. Then you win.

We’re on the conciliatory promise stage. Obama hopes this doublespeak will make those pesky American citizens just shut up. He doesn’t even think that the surveillance programs are a problem! He’s only acknowledged that it’s a problem that we don’t trust them as he does, and his “reforms” are designed to gain public support, not change the real problem.

We need to push twice as hard, because this is the first sign that things can change. One man doesn’t get to decide the operation of this country, the people do. We need to make that clear, and the final decision to neuter the NSA and repeal the PATRIOT act will be out of his hands.

That may be overly facile if, as I have argued, the true purpose of the surveillance has nothing to do with terrorism, with stronger forces than mere bureaucratic inertia arrayed to preserve the monitoring of US people. But in that case the effort to overcome them will at least be educational.

Stay tuned.

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E. F. Beall

E. F. Beall