Obama’s speech on government spying

President Obama gave an eagerly anticipated speech yesterday outlining his plans for the reform of the NSA. You can see the speech and read the transcript here. While the initial quick reactions amongst the punditry were mixed, more careful reading of his words reveal (as usual) that there is less than meets the eye. It is once again vintage Obama, using his skill with words to make the unacceptable palatable.

The ACLU has published a chart listing the all the reforms that should be made, and seeing how Obama’s speech, the recommendations of his own review committee, and the leading congressional reform proposals known as the USA Freedom Act, match up against them.

Glenn Greenwald gives his response to the speech.

That, in general, has long been Obama’s primary role in our political system and his premiere, defining value to the permanent power factions that run Washington. He prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in meaningful ways. He’s not an agent of change but the soothing branding packaging for it.

But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of plainly cosmetic “reforms”. By design, those proposals will do little more than maintain rigidly in place the very bulk surveillance systems that have sparked such controversy and anger.

To be sure, there were several proposals from Obama that are positive steps. A public advocate in the Fisa court, a loosening of “gag orders” for national security letters, removing metadata control from the NSA, stricter standards for accessing metadata, and narrower authorizations for spying on friendly foreign leaders (but not, of course, their populations) can all have some marginal benefits. But even there, Obama’s speech was so bereft of specifics – what will the new standards be? who will now control Americans’ metadata? – that they are more like slogans than serious proposals.

Ultimately, the radical essence of the NSA – a system of suspicion-less spying aimed at hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world – will fully endure even if all of Obama’s proposals are adopted. That’s because Obama never hid the real purpose of this process. It is, he and his officials repeatedly acknowledged, “to restore public confidence” in the NSA. In other words, the goal isn’t to truly reform the agency; it is deceive people into believing it has been so that they no longer fear it or are angry about it.

It was not encouraging that his speech provided a vigorous defense of the need for massive intelligence gathering and strong support for the NSA. And he raised the specter of 9/11 as justification, saying what warmongers always say now, that the cost of another attack is so great that practically anything is justified if it can be remotely shown to reduce the chances of it. The possible future failure to ‘connect the dots’ (how I have come to detest that cliché) is proffered as being so awful to contemplate that we must give the intelligence agencies all the spying capabilities they ask for to collect all the ‘dots’ (i.e., all our communications) as well as all the ‘pencils’ (i.e., coercive and abusive powers) to connect them.

I do not accept that premise. We all live with risks all the time. It does not make sense to arbitrarily pick out one risk out of all of them and then throw everything at it. Measures taken to reduce any particular risk, even that of a terrorist attack, have to be evaluated just like those to reduce any other risk. If you are dead you are dead, whether from a terrorist attack, a drunk driver, or some guy with a gun and a grievance who decides to take out his frustrations on random people.

No presidential speech is complete with a rousing conclusion pandering to the glory of America and its people and Obama did not disappoint, saying that the US is being held to a higher standard than other countries precisely because we are so noble

But let’s remember, we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity… Those values make us who we are. And because of the strength of our own democracy, we should not shy away from high expectations.

Give the man an Oscar for actually saying that with a straight face. Yes, we are at the forefront of defending human dignity, which is why we kidnap, torture, indefinitely detain, and murder innocent people all over the world.

I did not expect much from the speech. I am used to Obama giving stirring speeches that seem to promise those of us on the left a lot and then either doing nothing to implement his words or actually doing the opposite. We will have to see what concrete actions he takes, if any, before a final verdict comes in. Furthermore, the chairs of the intelligence committees (Democrat Diane Feinstein in the Senate and Republican Mike Rogers in the House) are two of the biggest supporters of the national security state and apologizers for its abuses. I suspect that Obama hopes that these two will scuttle even his minor reforms.

So I don’t expect much.


  1. mnb0 says

    I have stopped listening to what politicians say long ago. I’m only interested in concrete measures.

  2. Al Dente says

    It is once again vintage Obama, using his skill with words to make the unacceptable palatable.

    Obama is an extremely good speaker, possibly the best presidential speaker since Reagan. And like Reagan, when Obama’s speeches are analyzed for content, they contain a lot less than would appear at first sight.

    We keep getting told “these measures are preventing another 9/11” but I find it hard to believe that eavesdropping on Angela Merkel’s cellphone communications deter terrorism. I find it even harder to believe that reading my emails to my mother deter terrorism either.

  3. wtfwhateverd00d says

    That he didn’t go far enough is a direct measurement of American apathy on the subject.

    Imagine how much further it might go if there was a Professor leading teach ins and protests as one of America’s most widely respected schools.

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