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Obama Offers NSA Reform, Sort of

Updated on January 20, 2014

"Our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power, it depends on the law to constrain those in power" - President Obama, in his speech on Friday.


While Obama attempted to assuage the fears of the American public in his latest speech on controversial NSA programs, his words offered little more than platitudes admittedly meant only to placate those well-founded fears.

President Obama assured us last year that his administration had reviewed our counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering programs when he first took office, and had made appropriate reforms as necessary. He claimed that additional reforms are thus unnecessary, and would only be put into place for the purpose of convincing Americans to feel more comfortable with these programs, which would not be reformed in any significant manner.


President Obama assured us again Friday that he had already reviewed and reform the programs, and that we should end bulk metadata collection "as it currently exists" - but in a way that "preserves the capabilities." In other words; tell the media that they've ended a specific program in a cynical effort to make the American people feel better - only to have a program by another name adopt those same capabilities (ie Stellar Wind and PRISM).

Oh, and Obama called upon congress to figure it out. Yes, this congress...

On the bright side, Obama called for a public advocate to serve as public defense before the FISC court, albeit with exceptions. For big threats and short time frames, due process and justice is a luxury we cannot afford - the true emergency exception. For small threats and long time frames, the public advocate can't be bothered to argue for justice on behalf of the American people through due process - the significant cases exception.

These recall the ongoing threat and undue risk exceptions found in the Obama administration's White Papers on targeted killing of American citizens...

A public advocate (possibly rotating, and definitely at arms length with the intelligence community and FISC plaintiffs) would represent an important step. Obama asked congress to figure it out...


Also on a positive note, Obama said that the NSA would go from monitoring three hops from the subject of an investigation down to two. Unfortunately, as we saw in the Verizon case, a single warrant applied to millions of people. But it's still awful nice of the president to offer.

He also offered to curb spying on foreign citizens and leaders - which happens to be the specific purpose of having the NSA in the first place. And to declassify more FISC opinions - the proof will be in the proverbial pudding, and there's really no way to know in the absence of a strong public advocate

Obama framed any criticism of NSA programs as an attack on the integrity of every intelligence worker, and said that curtailing likely unconstitutional NSA programs would bring about another 9/11. Sadly, Obama conjured 9/11 over a dozen times in an unfortunate attempt to use thousands of deceased Americans as a shield for an omnipresent NSA.

NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, MD
NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, MD | Source

The president also mentioned Ed Snowden three times. As result of his whistle-blowing, we've learned that metadata & content of our phone calls & texts, google searches & emails, porno searches & online data habits...are being stored by the gov't for future reference - just in case. Obama's suggested possible reform was to have the private carriers hold onto it for us. Great, let's trust Target keep our information safe...

To be clear, whom holds onto the information is inconsequential.


General Hayden likens the bulk collection to a library, and the FISC is the librarian who must give the NSA approval to check out a book. The ACLU would note that the 4th Amendment protects us from illegal search and seizure. The warrantless bulk collection of the communications of suspicion-less Americans is in itself an unconstitutional seizure, long before the NSA goes before the FISC and asks for a warrant to search. And what of the FISC? The FISC has denied a grand total of 11 gov't requests in 33 years of existence, all of 0.03%.

Obama's attacks on Snowden were general attacks on whistle-blowing as a practice - not Snowden himself.

Daniel Ellsberg
Daniel Ellsberg | Source

Ellsberg and the New York Times "took it upon themselves" as well. As did Drake, who went through the proper channels, and was charged. Manning was tortured and will serve decades behind bars. Obama has used espionage charges more than double all previous administrations combined. Lawmakers of all stripes have called Snowden a traitor without fact-finding or due process, and claiming that he was a Russian spy all along - again without a shred of evidence.

Obama's speech wouldn't never happened without Snowden. He gave up his career, home, and girlfriend in Hawaii. He didn't cash out for a book deal or go on a promotional tour doing interviews for cash. His life is over - if Snowden came back he would suffer a fate far worse than that of Chelsea Manning. We should all be thanking him for his patriotism and service.

It has been said that those who would sacrifice freedom for security lose both, and deserve neither.


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