I’ve been too uncritical of the Obama administration in many ways. I respect president Obama for many of his qualities. He seems a man of thoughtfulness and integrity in ways that I haven’t really seen in a president in my lifetime. And he is one of the greatest orators of his generation. I respect his positions on a lot of issues, and he seems to acknowledge his own fallibility on many issues.
So imagine my disappointment. Today’s press conference on the NSA, surveillance and Snowden was an exercise in disingenous half-truths, of lies, of Watergate politics. It was pure spin, an exercise in obfuscation. It was everything I hoped this presidency wouldn’t be all rolled up into less than ten minutes of press conference.
Obama, though announcing four policy initiatives – literally the least he could have done in light of the Snowden files – completely failed to acknowledge a herd of stampeding elephants (I’m imagining spy elephants dressed in trenchcoats and wearing sunglasses and earpieces) in the room. Where Obama previously has shown a particular skill at acknowledging the ingrained problems of a situation, today he showed no such ability.
First of all, he pretended that these were steps he totally would have taken anyway, and that Snowden’s revelations just meant we were having a misinformed discussion. It was just pure, industrial-strength bullshit, like a child sent to clean his room after putting it off for hours saying but mo-om, I was totally going to do it!
What’s obvious to everyone here, of course, is that mr. Edward Snowden and the reporting of the Guardian is the reason – the only reason – the US and, indeed, the world, is having this conversation. Less than six months ago, The Director of National Intelligence was lying to Congress, claiming metadata collection on ordinary Americans did not take place. As we now know, it really, really was.
Second, Obama completely neglected to acknowledge the fact that his administration, in fact, has been actively preventing any kind of debate on this issue, both through clamping down on whistleblowing and by preventing oversight despite the work of Senator Wyden, among others.
Third, in his calming remarks about the necessity of warrants, he did not acknowledge the fact that warrantless review of US citizens’ phone calls and emails have almost certainly happened. A legal loophole exists, as the Guardian revealed in a massive scoop just a few hours ago, and Snowden also seems to claim that there is no kind of rigorous review process for deep content inspection by low-level NSA staffers of the communications of just about anyone.
Fourth, and most significantly, Obama actually said that the US exercised greater restraint and transparency than other countries.
And this is where we really need to take a time-out and look at the facts.
There are many words one can legitimately use to describe the US program of spying, but “restrained” surely is not among them. Unrestrained comes closer. The program voraciously swallowed up the data of the world, storing it, registering it, cataloguing and collating it. The Mainway database contains the metadata for almost two trillion phone calls. Now, you math geeks will recognize this as 2.000.000.000.000. Look at all those zeroes. You can pretty much make a profile of anyone alive using that data. Their movements, who they talk to, what they’re up to.
The program also, it was recently revealed, has actual content of emails, of web activity, social media, maps, searches … All searchable and retrievable, according to Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, by even low-level analysts, at the NSA or at private contractors, virtually unsupervised.
A program which contains within it the potential to reveal all the world’s most personal secrets at any given time to anybody with a security clearance is not “restrained”. At best, it is temporarily, serendipitously restrained. Restrained by chance, by the fact that a black hat hasn’t yet managed to get inside deep enough. Actual restraint means putting restrictions on the capability of government to do something. It does not mean putting restrictions on government as long as “good guys” are in office. The rigors of due process demands that the system is robust even for a future US president Palin or Putin.
What Obama said in his press conference is that the collection of your personal data by an intelligence service with no probable cause will continue unabated. Your data will still be at risk. Evidence is being collected against you even though you are not accused of a crime.
So while I welcome the actions of the president today, we should all recognize it for what it is: a stopgap measure to placate us. We should not be placated. The pressure on the president appears to be high, as he is forced to make concessions. The conversation must be continued, and more information must be pushed out in the open. The Obama administration is intent on listening to us. We should make sure it hears us loud and clear.
- Ezra Klein: Edward Snowden, Patriot
- Timothy B. Lee: The president is wrong: The NSA debate wouldn’t have happened without Snowden
- The Guardian: NSA loophole allows warrantless search for US citizens’ emails and phone calls
- ABC First Read: Snowden revelations force Obama’s hand on surveillance program
- The New York Times: Obama Offers Plan Meant to Ease Concerns on Surveillance