On January 17th, 2014, the question of how the NSA should properly be governed entered formally into the public discourse. President Obama put the NSA on a leash.
It's not a very short leash. It is a stretch leash, as it lets the animal wander a bit, but it brings it back home in the end. It is a thin leash. It could break. It may need to be strengthened if the animal on the end grows larger or more independent.
Obama spoke at the Department of Justice...
First, he told his audience that their mission dates back to Paul Revere...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: "Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you so much,
please have a seat. At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret
surveillance committee, born out of the Sons of Liberty, was established
in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere. At night, they
would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British
were preparing raids against America’s early patriots..."
Then he spoke of the leash that intelligence agencies have always worn...
"Throughout this evolution, we
benefited from both our Constitution and our traditions of limited
government. U.S. intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of
checks and balances, with oversight from elected leaders and protections
for ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, 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..."
He explained that abuse of the surveillance system for political gain has happened here before.
"In fact, even
the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance.
In the 1960s government spied on civil rights leaders and critics of the
Vietnam War. And probably in response to these revelations, additional
laws were established in the 1970s to ensure that our intelligence
capabilities could not be misused against our citizens."
The struggle that keeps our services going has become a struggle against motivated individuals.
"Now, if the fall of the Soviet Union
left America without a competing superpower, emerging threats from
terrorist groups and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
place new and, in some ways, more complicated demands on our
Moreover, these new
threats raised new legal and new policy questions, for while few doubted
the legitimacy of spying on hostile states, our framework of laws was
not fully adapted to prevent terrorist attacks by individuals acting on
their own or acting in small ideological -- ideologically driven groups
on behalf of a foreign power."
To deal with threats from motivated individuals, we needed to become able to spy on everyone.
"The horror of September 11th brought
all these issues to the fore. Across the political spectrum, Americans
recognized that we had to adapt to a world in which a bomb could be
built in a basement and our electric grid could be shut down by
operators an ocean away.
So we demanded that
our intelligence community improve its capabilities and that law
enforcement change practices to focus more on preventing attacks before
they happen than prosecuting terrorists after an attack."
Spying on everyone enables agencies to focus on those who are most likely to cause problems and to stop them just before they do this:
hard to overstate the transformation America’s intelligence community
had to go through after 9/11. Our agencies suddenly needed to do far
more than the traditional mission of monitoring hostile powers and
gathering information for policymakers.
Instead, they were now
asked to identify and target plotters in some of the most remote parts
of the world and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by their
very nature, could not be easily penetrated by spies or informants."
The NSA's view of all people is shared with all law enforcement:
capabilities allow intelligence agencies to track who a terrorist is in
contact with and follow the trail of his travel or his funding. New laws
allow information to be collected and shared more quickly and
effectively between federal agencies and state and local law
But Obama has problems with torture, warrant-less wiretaps, and new "authorities" that were put into law without debate:
"And yet, in our rush to respond to a very real and
novel set of threats, the risk of government overreach, the possibility
that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security also
became more pronounced. We saw in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 our
government engage in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted
our values. As a senator, I was critical of several practices, such as
warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted
without adequate public debate."
The problem persists:
"... some of the worst excesses that emerged after
9/11 were curbed by the time I took office. But a variety of factors
have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation
and uphold our civil liberties.
First, the same technological
advances that allow U.S. intelligence agencies to pinpoint an al-Qaida
cell in Yemen or an email between two terrorists in the Sahel also
mean that many routine communications around the world are within our
reach. And at a time when more and more of our lives are digital, that
prospect is disquieting for all of us.
Second, the combination of
increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers
intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts
of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart
impending threats. It’s a powerful tool. But the government collection
and storage of such bulk data also creates a potential for abuse."
As we get more and more powerful, we should watch what we do:
America’s capabilities are unique, and the power of new technologies
means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we
That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do."
All this light that's being shined on intelligence agencies messes them up, even as they do their best to over-collect information of decreasing relevance. Surveillance technology is evolving faster than the laws that govern it. The danger of overreach becomes more acute:
finally, intelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy, which
makes their work less subject to public debate. Yet there is an
inevitable bias, not only within the intelligence community but among
all of us who are responsible for national security, to collect more
information about the world, not less. So in the absence of
institutional requirements for regular debate and oversight that is
public as well as private or classified, the danger of government
overreach becomes more acute. And this is particularly true when
surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is
evolving much faster than our laws."
Our new capabilities are outstripping the laws that guide us:
"... And while I
was confident in the integrity of those who lead our intelligence
community, it was clear to me in observing our intelligence operations
on a regular basis that changes in our technological capabilities were
raising new questions about the privacy safeguards currently in place.
after an extended review in the use of drones in the fight against
terrorist networks, I believe a fresh examination of our surveillance
programs was a necessary next step in our effort to get off the
open-ended war footing that we’ve maintained since 9/11."
An end to the war on the world.
Then he mentioned his War College speech last spring about the NSA and the use of drones:
these reasons, I indicated in a speech at the National Defense
University last May that we needed a more robust public discussion about
the balance between security and liberty. Of course, what I did not
know at the time is that within weeks of my speech an avalanche of
unauthorized disclosures would spark controversies at home and abroad
that have continued to this day."
The solution to the Snowden issue is to uphold the civil liberties and privacy protections our ideals and our Constitution require:
"... the task
before us now is greater than simply repairing the damage done to our
operations or preventing more disclosures from taking place in the
Instead we have to make some important decisions about how
to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world while
upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections our ideals and our
will not be completed overnight, and given the pace of technological
change, we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time America has this
There are going to be some changes:
"So before outlining specific
changes that I’ve ordered, let me make a few broad observations that
have emerged from this process."
1) The need is real, abuse is possible, corporations do it too, we can't just say "trust us":
"First, everyone who has looked at
these problems, including skeptics of existing programs, recognizes that
we have real enemies and threats...
We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or
cyberthreats without some capability to penetrate digital
cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies... We know that the intelligence services of other countries... are
constantly probing our government and private sector networks and
accelerating programs to listen to our conversations and intercept our
emails and compromise our systems."
2) There is a potential for abuse.
just as our civil libertarians recognized the need for robust
intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our national
security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse...
... they know, more than most of us, the vulnerabilities
to privacy that exist in a world where transactions are recorded and
email and text and messages are stored and even our movements can
increasingly be tracked through the GPS on our phones."
3) Corporations perform surveillance, too. They're part of the picture.
Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and
analyze our data and use it for commercial purposes. That’s how those
targeted ads pop up on your computer and your smartphone periodically.
all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance
must be higher. Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough
for leaders to say: Trust us.... Our
system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot
depend on the good intentions of those in power."
The changes, from he whose motto was "Change you can believe in..." :
"... And today I can
announce a series of concrete and substantial reforms that my
administration intends to adopt administratively or will seek to codify
A new directive will strengthen oversight and will take into account our commitment to privacy and basic liberties:
"First, I have approved a new presidential directive
for our signals intelligence activities both at home and abroad. This
guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence
activities. It will ensure that we take into account our security
requirements, but also our alliances, our trade and investment
relationships, including the concerns of American companies, and our
commitment to privacy and basic liberties. And we will review decisions
about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis
so that our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior national
We will make programs more visible (or more transparent, depending on how you read this).
"Second, we will reform programs and procedures in
place to provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and
fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Since
we began this review, including information being released today, we’ve
declassified over 40 opinions and orders of the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Court... "
We will annually look to see if there are any secret FISA court decisions that we can declassify:
"And going forward, I’m directing the director of
national intelligence, in consultation with the attorney general, to
annually review for the purposes of declassification any future opinions
of the court with broad privacy implications and to report to me and to
Congress on these efforts."
Privacy interests will be independently represented before the FISA court:
"To ensure that the court hears a
broader range of privacy perspectives, I’m also calling on Congress to
authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside
government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."
We are placing more restrictions of some sort or other on using information in criminal cases that comes from in American-foreign communications:
"Third... Specifically, I’m asking the attorney general and DNI
to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government’s
ability to retain, search and use in criminal cases communications
between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under
National security letters, which secretly tell companies to provide information to the government, will be secret for a limited time, and will be made public after their need is gone.
"Fourth, in investigating threats, the FBI also relies
on what’s called national security letters, which can require companies
to provide specific and limited information to the government without
disclosing the orders to the subject of the investigation."
Bulk metadata which describes telephone calls - who called who, when, and for how long - comes from the providers. Henceforth it can stay on their computers. We can create a data warehouse out of diverse provider databases that looks to us like one single database. It's the same data - it just sits on the provider's computers rather than ours. (And a deft move, that!)
"This brings me to the program that has generated
the most controversy these past few months, the bulk collection of
telephone records under Section 215.
The review group turned up no indication that this
database has been intentionally abused, and I believe it is important
that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.
said that, I believe critics are right to point out that without proper
safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more
information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive
bulk collection programs in the future.
I believe we need a
new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the
Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a
mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the
government holding this bulk metadata."
We are going to limit the fineness of the fishnet with which we gather America's data:
immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed
from a number associated with a terrorist organization, instead of the
Let Congress debate the shape we will take:
recognize that there are additional issues that require further debate.
I have concerns that we
should not set a standard for terrorism investigations that is higher
than those involved in investigating an ordinary crime.
agree that greater oversight ... may be
appropriate. And I’m prepared to work with Congress on this issue.
... On all these issues, I’m open to
working with Congress to ensure that we build a broad consensus for how
to move forward. And I’m confident that we can shape an approach that
meets our security needs while upholding the civil liberties of every
On collection of intelligence from abroad:
"Let me now turn to ...
intelligence collection abroad. Our
capabilities help protect not only our nation but our friends and our
allies as well.
But our efforts will only be effective if ordinary
citizens in other countries have confidence that the United States
respects their privacy too. And the leaders of our close friends and
allies deserve to know that if I want to know what they think about an
issue I’ll pick up the phone and call them rather than turning to
..., the new
presidential directive that I’ve issued today will clearly prescribe
what we do and do not do when it comes to our overseas surveillance.
begin with, the directive makes clear that the United States only uses
signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes and not
for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls
of ordinary folks."
Obama forgets how the national security apparatus was used to suppress the Occupy Movement:
"The United States
does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do
we collect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their
ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation or religious beliefs.
We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to
U.S. companies or U.S. commercial sectors.
... people around the world, regardless
of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying
on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security and that we
take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures.
applies to foreign leaders as well. Given the understandable attention
that this issue has received, I’ve made clear to the intelligence
community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose,
we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government
of our close friends and allies."
Obama is assigning staff to follow through:
"Finally, to make sure that we follow through on all
these reforms... The State Department will designate a senior officer to
coordinate diplomacy on issues related to technology and signals
intelligence. We will appoint a senior official at the White House to
implement the new privacy safeguards that I’ve announced today. I will
devote the resources to centralize and improve the process we use to
handle foreign requests for legal assistance, keeping our high standards
for privacy while helping foreign partners fight crime and terrorism."
More reforms will be needed:
"... So while the reforms that
I’ve announced will point us in a new direction, I am mindful that more
work will be needed in the future. On thing I’m certain of, this debate
will make us stronger. And I also know that in this time of change, the
United States of America will have to lead."
Working together, Congress and the Executive can navigate the "privacy vs security" tight-rope:
"For more than two centuries, our Constitution has
weathered every type of change because we’ve been willing to defend it
and because we’ve been willing to question the actions that have been
taken in its defense. Today is no different. I believe we can meet high
expectations. Together, let us chart a way forward that secures the life
of our nation while preserving the liberties that make our nation worth
Thank you. God bless you. May God bless the United States of America.
Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you"
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Of course, there were objections. The Conservatives felt Obama did not do enough to preserve our freedom by suppressing surveillance. Progressives also felt he could have done more.
The NSA is uncertain how much information Snowden took and how soon it will be released. One can guess that they have been cleaning house lately, burying old messes, preparing to be all spick and span for a visit by the preacher. As a creature on a leash, it behooves the NSA to become a "good dog."
As more and more bad news gets leaked by the Guardian about the NSA, the leash may be a more and more comfortable place for it to be.
Obama followed his NSA speech by saying, a day or two later, that marijuana causes less damage to a person than beer. This completely changed the subject, and the NSA was no longer in the news.