Obama To Talk NSA Reforms Friday, It May Disappoint You

President Obama is expected to present his proposal addressing reforms to the National Security Agency (NSA) this Friday following a lengthy review of the agency in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations last summer of agency data collection.

But, as James Oliphant writes in the National Journal, don’t expect to see anything really concrete addressing the overreach of the agencies’ powers into the lives of ordinary Americans. Not likely from a man who is now promoting a “9/11 justification” for the NSA program:

To lay the groundwork for that position, aides to the president told the Los Angeles Times this weekend that the NSA’s metadata collection scheme could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks. What’s more, Obama has adopted that “9/11 justification” for the NSA program, the paper reported.

That’s a blinking-red signal that the administration is not about to be accused of making the country more vulnerable by tampering with such a preventive weapon. Remember that George W. Bush, a Republican, walked back his warrantless wiretapping program in 2007 after a public outcry. This president, a Democrat, isn’t going to follow suit—especially given the new instability in Iraq and worries about the vacuum left by the coming pullout from Afghanistan.

Oliphant expects nothing more than Kabuki Theater, a lot of pretty hand gestures and “meaningful” outrage leading to impressive-sounding reforms that amount to little real change. And that’s more than likely exactly what will happen, given the trotting out of the RepubliDems to give their thumbs up at how much safer we all are now that the NSA has all the metadata discreetly set aside. Should they need it. Further, he’s expected to consult Congress on just exactly what they think he should do as regards the NSA’s future — quite a departure from his other mention of Congress lately. (“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”) The houselights just went down.

But there’s been a little wrinkle this week — a pesky little outfit called the New America Foundation (interestingly, it’s chaired by Google’s Eric Schmidt. But then, many tech companies aren’t quite in lockstep with Obama on this issue.) has recently released a report that appears to show little correlation between NSA data collection and the foiling of terrorist plots. From Oliphant:

Stone’s view of the program being only “potentially useful” undergirds a finding by the panel as a whole that the data-collection scheme “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that the information “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.” On Monday, the New America Foundation released an analysis of 225 terrorism cases, concluding that the program “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”

And that’s the real context for what Obama will say Friday. He’ll have to justify the use of such data when there is little to no evidence that it has ever played a significant role in stopping a plot. He’ll have to signal that he’s taken the objections of nervous citizens, privacy advocates, members of Congress, and the telecom industry seriously, even as he refuses to scale back the program.

It’s absolutely fair to say that technology can be used to keep track of the bad guys and get in front of them before they carry out their nefarious deeds, and that this should be encouraged. And whether or not Snowden is some kind of hero is really not the issue.

What’s at issue here is a massive overreach into the private lives of regular citizens wherein those being tracked have very little understanding of just what’s happening and just who’s watching. And when you have a member of Congress suggesting that the NSA spy on his colleagues on The Hill “in case they happened to be ‘talking to an Al Qaeda leader in Iraq or Afghanistan’” as Peter King did on Fox News Sunday, according to the Rare piece above, reform is definitely needed.

The question now becomes will the reforms be RINOs (reforms in name only)? And (this just seems related and is maybe worth the exploration) how does the recent decision by the court to strike down net neutrality efforts affect any reforms that may result in the case of the NSA?


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