He proposes to change antiterror programs that he admits are necessary and haven’t been abused.
President Obama finally joined the surveillance debate on Friday with a conflicted address, and perhaps it would have been better had he stayed out. His new antiterror proposals will do little to secure American privacy but they might make the country less safe.
Rhetorically Mr. Obama tried to satisfy all sides, meaning he fishtailed between irreconcilable positions. There’s what the President knows to be the reality that these programs are valuable and haven’t been abused. Then there are the critics that he is attempting to appease lest they succeed at turning Congress and the public against the programs.
Mr. Obama could rally enough support on Capitol Hill to retain the programs if he wanted, and such an appeal would include some of his Friday highlights: The world is more dangerous than ever due to “threats like terrorism, proliferation and cyber-attacks,” and post-9/11 surveillance has “prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives, not just here but around the globe as well.” Nothing suggests that “our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.” All of this is true.
But Mr. Obama then argues that the National Security Agency must be more constrained because of “the danger of government overreach.” The most state-aggrandizing President since LBJ, and man who won’t discipline the IRS for its abuses, also invoked America’s “traditions of limited government.” This is doubly ironic given that the White House widely leaked to reporters that Mr. Obama believes he can be trusted with the surveillance status quo but a future Republican can’t.
Thus Mr. Obama announced that he will pursue or impose changes to NSA practice that he implicitly concedes are unnecessary. Rarely has national defense been so needlessly politicized.
Mr. Obama asked Congress to end the bulk collection of telephone metadata by government, even as he explained that the program would be vital “if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks.” Some third party will do the job instead, and the NSA will only conduct individual searches with court approval.
Mr. Obama never explained why a nonprofit consortium would be more trustworthy, secure or less prone to political spying than the NSA, nor why privacy would be any more protected. Let’s hope the folks behind Target’s cyber security aren’t hired to do the job. The result of these changes could be that Chinese hackers will have better access to U.S. metadata than the NSA.
The Attorney General will also ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to start reviewing all metadata queries during the “transition” to this third-party system. Come again? The judiciary is vested with the power to arbitrate cases under laws passed by Congress, not create ad hoc policy with the executive, so this is one more example of presidential buckpassing.
The President says the NSA will abandon its standard practice of following suspicious phone call patterns over three “hops,” or phone calls of separation, and instead go with merely two. He offered no rationale for not following as far as the data lead, so this is also a win for politics and terror cells three steps removed from a tip.
The worst idea is what he called “the unprecedented step” of extending privacy rights to foreigners, and he’s right about unprecedented. Heads of state deemed friendly will enjoy immunity from U.S. eavesdropping as their spooks continue to spy on the U.S., while other still-to-be-devised protections like those that used to apply only domestically will flow overseas to non-U.S. nationals. This will have no reciprocal benefit since no other intelligence service will believe the U.S. would be so dumb as to hamstring itself this way.
Even when he defended the NSA, Mr. Obama couldn’t resist his moralizing impulses. He observed that “totalitarian states like East Germany offered a cautionary tale of what could happen when vast, unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers, and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes.”
To say that an evil communist dictatorship explains anything about a self-governing, politically accountable democracy is insulting to Americans. No wonder our intelligence personnel are increasingly demoralized. Such rhetoric merely empowers the paranoids and incendiaries, who still say his reforms are inadequate because they don’t kill surveillance altogether.
The saving grace will have to be Congress, believe it or not. Speaker John Boehner responded with a 115-word statement that was far more eloquent than Mr. Obama’s 43-minute speech, declaring that the House “will not erode the operational integrity of critical programs that have helped keep America safe.” His fellow Republicans should follow that lead.