Washington’s Blog
January 18, 2013

President Obama did exactly what the American people predicted: made a pretty speech, but failed to rein in NSA spying.

CNN correctly notes:

Critics of U.S. intelligence practices barely waited for the speech to end before pouncing.

Representative Rush Holt says:

The President’s speech offered far less than meets the eye.

“His proposals continue to allow surveillance of Americans without requiring a Fourth Amendment determination of probable cause. They continue to regardAmericans as suspects first and citizens second. They continue to allow the government to build backdoors into computer software and hardware. They fail to strengthen protections for whistleblowers who uncover abusive spying.

“The President spoke about navigating ‘the balance between security and liberty.’ But this is a faulty and false choice. As Barack Obama himself urged in his first inaugural address, we must ‘reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.’

“The Fourth Amendment and other civil liberty protections do not exist to impede police or intelligence agencies. To the contrary, they exist to hold to hold government agents to a high standard – to ensure that they act on the basis of evidence, rather than wasting time and resources on wild goose chases.

“Even the modest improvements announced today are subject to reversal at a stroke of the President’s pen. A standard of ‘trust my good intentions’ isn’t good enough. Congress should reject these practices and repeal the laws that made the NSA’s abuses possible.”

Senator Rand Paul says:

President Obama’s announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration ….

The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house,” Paul said about Obama’s promise to appoint a special White House oversight director to keep a watchful eye over the security programs.

Leading constitutional and military law expert Jonathan Turley writes:

I just listened to the NSA speech by President Obama and as expected there is precious little in terms of real change. For civil libertarians, it is a nothing burger served hot and with a sympathetic smile. It is much of the same.


The programs will continue and the intelligence community will retain its authority with little outside independent limits. The speech had the feel of a car salesman coming back from “speaking with the manager” and saying that he is able to offer a deal that no one likes but he wants to offer because he likes the customer. Of course, this “deal” does not require our consent.

In the end, the changes are either undefined (like the privacy advocates) or basically “trust us were your government” (including a reminder that NSA people are your neighbors).

The Paul Revere reference at the beginning seemed to set the less than honestapproach of the speech. Revere and the Sons of Liberty were watching public movement of an enemy at war. Likewise, Obama again references “court” review of the metadata as if it were a true court applying real probable cause. FISC has been widely ridiculed as arubber-stamp for the government. The Court is given a standard that is hard for the government not to satisfy with even the most casual filings.

Michael Ratner – President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights – says:

He starts with a lot of BS about oversight, transparency, kicks a bunch of it to Congress,all completely meaningless. And he starts on, let’s say–well, his main point when he started talking about the reforms was also interesting to me. He says, after he talks about all of, you know, the 9/11 and the patriots who were spies, then he says it’s not enough to trust us, the government. We have to put into place, laws, etc. So it’s not just us as the government, not enough to trust us.

But in fact, everything that he says, we’re going to have to trust the government, which we’ve shown that we can’t trust.

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund notes:

Rather than dismantling the NSA’s unconstitutional mass surveillance programs, or even substantially restraining them, President Obama today has issued his endorsement of them. What are billed as ‘reforms’ are mere window dressing, cosmetic changes that leave this unconstitutional system intact and, in fact, provide presidential ratification.

Today’s speech full of minimization and outright denial regarding the now-documented massive scope of NSA spying on the population served as the presidential announcement of an intention to permanently implement a national surveillance grid and indiscriminate mass data collection. Every keystroke will still be captured, every phone call will still be logged.


Using tactics of misdirection, the president has tried to reframe the issue as who should house the massive collection of data on law-abiding people, rather than the real issue, which is that this massive indiscriminate collection and warehousing of data must stop.This speech will fail to stop the tide of opposition of people in the United States and around the world who reject living under a Surveillance State.

The Washington Post’s Bart Gellman points out:

Obama placed restrictions on access to domestic phone records collected by the National Security Agency, but the changes he announced will allow it to continue — or expand — the collection of personal data from billions of people around the world, Americans and foreign citizens alike.

Obama squares that circle with an unusually narrow definition of “spying.” It does not include the ingestion of tens of trillions of records about the telephone calls, e-mails, locations and relationships of people for whom there is no suspicion of relevance to any threat.

In his speech, and an accompanying policy directive, Obama described principles for “restricting the use of this information” — but not  for gathering less of it.


Obama gave his plainest endorsement yet of “bulk collection,” a term he used more than once and authorized explicitly in Presidential Policy Directive 28. In a footnote, the directive defined the term to mean high-volume collection “without the use of discriminants.”

The Guardian reports:

Obama’s NSA speech: an affirmation that mass surveillance has a future


The Mozilla Foundation – the internet non-profit that makes, among other things, the Firefox browser – reacted to Obama’s speech in a way that pointed to the path not taken. “Overall, the strategy seems to be to leave current intelligence processes largely intact and improve oversight to a degree,” it said in a statement.

“We’d hoped for, and the internet deserves, more. Without a meaningful change of course, the internet will continue on its path toward a world of balkanization and distrust, a grave departure from its origins of openness and opportunity.”

Spencer Ackerman tweets:

The more you parse the details of what Obama’s announced & what he’s punted on, the better it looks for NSA [and the worse it looks for the people.]

David Swanson comments:

Massive bulk collection of everybody’s data will continue unconstitutionally, but Obama has expressed a certain vague desire to end it, sort of, except for the parts that are needed, but not to do so right away. The comparisons to the closure of the Guantanamo death camp began instantly.


Obama has not proposed to end abuses. He’s proposed to appoint two new bureaucrats plus John Podesta. Out of this speech we get reviews of policies, a commitment to tell the Director of National Intelligence to read court rulings that impact the crimes and abuses he’s engaged in, and a promise that the “Intelligence Community” will inspect itself. (Congress, the courts, and the people don’t come up in this list of reforms.) Usually this sort of imperial-presidential fluff wins praise from Obama’s followers. This time, I’m not hearing it.

ACLU’s executive director Anthony Romero says:

The president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling. The president outlined a process to study the issue further and appears open to alternatives. But the president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data.When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution. The president’s own review panel recommended that bulk data collection be ended, and the president should accept that recommendation in its entirety.”

Julian Assange argues:

[It’s] embarrassing for a head of state to go on like that for 45 minutes and say almost nothing.

CNN’s Ashley Killough points out:

Retired Maj. Gen. James ‘Spider’ Marks says he doubts anything is going to “substantively change” in terms of using data collection to go after terrorism.

CNN’s Carl Lavin points out:

How important is 9/11 – I count
nine mentions ….

But Zeke Johnson tweets:

President repeats red-herring about 9/11 fail related to lack of surveillance. Problem was lack of sharing existing info btw CIA & FBI

And Dana Davidson comments:

CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen says the true story of 9/11 wasn’t a failure to have enough intelligence data. Read the story: Would NSA surveillance have stopped 9/11 plot?

Glenn Greenwald notes:

It’s really just basically a PR gesture, a way to calm the public and to make them think there’s reform when in reality there really won’t be. And I think that if the public, at this point, has heard enough about what the NSA does and how invasive it is, that they’re going to need more than just a pretty speech from President Obama to feel as though their concerns have been addressed.


“Store all citizens’ communications records” is a radical policy. But it’s been transformed to normal- only allowed debate is: who holds it?


The key question: will the NSA continue to monitor hundreds of millions of people without any suspicion? Under Obama’s proposals: yes.


In response to political scandal and public outrage, official Washington repeatedly uses the same well-worn tactic.


The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are “serious questions that have been raised”. They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.

This scam has been so frequently used that it is now easily recognizable. In the mid-1970s, the Senate uncovered surveillance abuses that had been ongoing for decades, generating widespread public fury. In response, the US Congress enacted a new law (Fisa) which featured two primary “safeguards”: a requirement of judicial review for any domestic surveillance, and newly created committees to ensure legal compliance by the intelligence community.

But the new court was designed to ensure that all of the government’s requests were approved: it met in secret, only the government’s lawyers could attend, it was staffed with the most pro-government judges, and it was even housed in the executive branch. As planned, the court over the next 30 years virtually never said no to the government.

Identically, the most devoted and slavish loyalists of the National Security State were repeatedly installed as the committee’s heads, currently in the form of NSA cheerleaders Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the Senate and Republican Mike Rogers in the House. As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put it in a December 2013 article on the joke of Congressional oversight, the committees “more often treat … senior intelligence officials like matinee idols”.

As a result, the committees, ostensibly intended to serve an overseer function, have far more often acted as the NSA’s in-house PR firm. The heralded mid-1970s reforms did more to make Americans believe there was reform than actually providing any, thus shielding it from real reforms.

The same thing happened after the New York Times, in 2005, revealed that the NSA under Bush had been eavesdropping on Americans for years without the warrants required by criminal law. The US political class loudly claimed that they would resolve the problems that led to that scandal. Instead, they did the opposite: in 2008, a bipartisan Congress, with the support of then-Senator Barack Obama, enacted a new Fisa law that legalized the bulk of the once-illegal Bush program, including allowing warrantless eavesdropping on hundreds of millions of foreign nationals and large numbers of Americans as well.

This was also the same tactic used in the wake of the 2008 financial crises. Politicians dutifully read from the script that blamed unregulated Wall Street excesses and angrily vowed to reign them in. They then enacted legislation that left the bankers almost entirely unscathed, and which made the “too-big-to-fail” problem that spawned the crises worse than ever.

And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards.


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.


Obama’s speech was so bereft of specifics …. 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.


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.

Cesar Cordova parodies Obama’s speech:

“Changes in the NSA goes as follows. Tuesday will now be known as Taco Tuesdays at the cafeteria. That is all.”

SRsage107 replies with his own satire:

You misread. It clearly says “sweeping” changes. It just means they are going to “try” and keep more of their illegal surveillance swept under the rug.

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