This afternoon's White House press conference is a make-or-break moment for critics of the National Security Agency's surveillance state. If President Obama doesn't announce plans to curtail the NSA's bulk data collection practices today, future efforts to rein in the agency will almost certainly need to go through Congress or the courts.
Obama's presser caps the end of a particularly trying week for the NSA—and an unexpectedly rewarding one for privacy advocates. The week's gut punches to the agency have come from virtually all sides—the courts, an executive-branch advisory panel, even former supporters within Congress—and has led to a noticeable pivot in the debate on government surveillance that has been raging since Edward Snowden leaked details of the NSA's spying methods in June.
A New York Times report on Friday morning details secret documents that "provide a much fuller portrait of the spies' sweeping interests in more than 60 countries," a dragnet that includes monitoring of senior Israeli officials, heads of international aid organizations, and foreign energy companies, among others.
The report follows a week that began with a federal judge blasting the government's ability to analyze Americans' personal communications as "almost Orwellian" and deeming it a likely breach of the Fourth Amendment. The ruling prompted Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the most vocal supporters of the NSA, to concede that the Supreme Court should review the constitutionality of sweeping surveillance activities. On Wednesday, the White House made public a presidential task force's 300-page review of the surveillance programs; it urges 46 restrictive changes to the NSA's counterterrorism program. And Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called for a reduction in the NSA's capabilities.
Obama is widely expected to address some of the 46 recommendations made by the advisory panel at the 2 p.m. press conference today before he jets off to Hawaii for the holidays. Observers believe he will concede a need to rein in the NSA's practices, but it is unclear to what extent he intends to do so.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that the administration "believes we can take steps to put in place greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints on the use of this authority." But he stood by the repeated assertions from the White House and others that the NSA's data-collection activities have thwarted terrorist threats and saved lives. Carney also defended the controversial Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which both the Bush and Obama administrations have used to justify bulk data collection.