Hard-core privacy advocates and enemies of American power are disappointed with President Obama’s speech today; Americans who care about our national security should be too.
The president didn’t, wisely, announce sweeping changes to the conduct of the U.S. intelligence community. Instead, he announced a variety of redundant policies to review intelligence work, said he would gather recommendations on how to fix the NSA’s metadata program, and made some other promises — which will be as likely to hamper the NSA’s work as it will be to guarantee more privacy for Americans. Much worse was the time he devoted to extending Americans’ protections to foreigners, complicating surveillance work abroad, where it ought to be nearly unfettered.
For instance, he announced some new efforts for more expedient declassification of “national-security letters,” which can be used to request information from private companies for terrorism investigations. But he stopped short of most of the recommendations of the panel he convened, which suggested, for instance, that courts should have to approve such letters.
More than six months after the NSA’s metadata program was first revealed to the public, the president offered his first clear, solid defense of the ongoing, successful, and clearly constitutional program, noting it could have busted open the 9/11 plot. He did promise to end the collection system as we know it, asking a board to come up with ways for the NSA to quickly query bulk data when a court gives the agency permission to, without having that data stored by the government. If this sounds like an equivocal refusal to acknowledge the tradeoff between liberty and security, that’s because it is. (The real answer may be coming in March, when the president promised to take his metadata reforms to Congress.)
President Obama was much more definitive about new privileges for his fellow citizens of the world. He proudly promised that “heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend,” need not worry about the evil eye of the NSA. The White House says this protected class comprises “dozens” of countries — official allies of the U.S. include such mercurial states as Turkey and Egypt. Today, the president’s descriptor could apply even to Iran or China, though we can presumably still trust it won’t be.
The presidential policy directive released today is more concrete than his speech, and just as solicitous of the foreign complaints Edward Snowden has elicited. Intelligence about foreigners, the most fundamental objective of the National Security Agency, can now be collected, disseminated, and retained only if it is tied to counterintelligence or counterterrorism operations, criminal investigations, or specific national-security concerns. In reality, ordinary diplomacy can and should benefit from non-public information about the activities of citizens and politicians in other countries. Such spying should be conducted carefully, but it would be foolish not to do it at all when other countries, allies and enemies alike, do it as best they can. President Reagan, who extended the above protections to Americans in 1981, learned in diplomacy with the Russians and others to “trust but verify.” That’s a little too intrusive for this president, apparently.
The president rightly described the U.S. as having “unique responsibilities” to support the security of its allies and the world at large, not least through intelligence collection. Oddly, however, he believes “our [intelligence] efforts will only be effective if ordinary citizens in other countries have confidence that the United States respects their privacy too.”
This kind of nonsense is typical of a speech where a politician wants to say something to mollify critics while standing, for the most part, by the work for which he’s been criticized. It’s unbecoming of a commander-in-chief explaining how he balances his duty to keep Americans safe with the need to respect their liberty. The president’s directive released today does include a Dick Cheney clause: Nothing in the document, the section reads, “shall be construed to prevent” the president’s authority as commander-in-chief or his ability to conduct foreign affairs. Rightly so — but based on the president’s performance today, we are skeptical of his seriousness about fulfilling those duties.