White House

NSA Unleashed, Obama Tells Public, ‘Trust Me’

Government’s loss of credibility undermines the president’s so-called surveillance reforms.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 10: U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a meeting with young citizens at Columbia Height's restaurant The Coupe on January 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama met with some of the people helping with healthcare enroll efforts, their experiences in spreading the word about the importance of signing up for affordable health insurance and thanked them for their efforts. 
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Ron Fournier
Jan. 15, 2014, 5:14 a.m.

Nearly six months ago, Pres­id­ent Obama sought to tem­per out­rage over the na­tion’s mush­room­ing sur­veil­lance pro­grams by pledging new steps to bal­ance pri­vacy and safety. “It’s not enough for me, as pres­id­ent, to have con­fid­ence in these pro­grams,” he said. “The Amer­ic­an people need to have con­fid­ence in them as well.”

In oth­er words, no gov­ern­ment, not even one led by a lib­er­al con­sti­tu­tion­al law­yer, can shield bad policies with empty prom­ises. It’s not enough to say, “Trust us,” while curb­ing sac­red liber­ties — and yet that still ap­pears to be Obama’s po­s­i­tion.

Pre­views of the pres­id­ent’s ad­dress on coun­terter­ror­ism Fri­day sug­gest he will not em­brace the most far-reach­ing pro­pos­als of his own ad­visers and will punt some of the toughest is­sues to a dys­func­tion­al Con­gress. The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency gets a pass.

My col­league James Ol­iphant wrote Tues­day, “Pres­id­ent Obama has a rare op­por­tun­ity this week to re­shape the na­tion’s coun­terter­ror­ism strategy. He won’t take it.” Mean­while, Peter Baker and Charlie Sav­age of The New York Times re­por­ted today:

Mr. Obama plans to in­crease lim­its on ac­cess to bulk tele­phone data, call for pri­vacy safe­guards for for­eign­ers and pro­pose the cre­ation of a pub­lic ad­voc­ate to rep­res­ent pri­vacy con­cerns at a secret in­tel­li­gence court. But he will not en­dorse leav­ing bulk data in the cus­tody of tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions firms, nor will he re­quire court per­mis­sion for all so-called na­tion­al se­cur­ity let­ters seek­ing busi­ness re­cords.

The emer­ging ap­proach, de­scribed by cur­rent and former gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who in­sisted on an­onym­ity in ad­vance of Mr. Obama’s widely an­ti­cip­ated speech, sug­ges­ted a pres­id­ent try­ing to straddle a dif­fi­cult line in hopes of pla­cat­ing for­eign lead­ers and ad­voc­ates of civil liber­ties without a back­lash from na­tion­al se­cur­ity agen­cies. The res­ult seems to be a speech that leaves in place many cur­rent pro­grams, but em­braces the spir­it of re­form and keeps the door open to changes later.

Em­bra­cing “the spir­it of re­form” is a eu­phem­ism for not re­form­ing. If any­thing, NSA could emerge stronger: Obama is co­di­fy­ing the sweep­ing and still-largely secret activ­it­ies of the U.S. in­tel­li­gence sys­tem while mol­li­fy­ing the pub­lic’s pri­vacy con­cerns.

I do not doubt the pres­id­ent’s sin­cer­ity about bal­an­cing na­tion­al se­cur­ity and civil liber­ties. I re­cog­nize that those of us out­side of the na­tion­al se­cur­ity sys­tem are com­fort­ably ig­nor­ant about most threats against the na­tion. Our en­emies are ad­apt­ing to tech­no­logy, dan­ger­ously so, and must be countered.

But as the pres­id­ent him­self con­ceded, this is­sue is big­ger than one man’s word. It’s about the power ceded to fu­ture pres­id­ents, and it hinges on the pub­lic’s faith in gov­ern­ment. Since the early 1960s, when nearly 80 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans said they trus­ted gov­ern­ment “most of the time,” the pub­lic’s faith in its polit­ic­al lead­er­ship has de­clined stead­ily, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, to less than 20 per­cent.

The Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions did not help mat­ters by shroud­ing NSA’s work in far more secrecy than needed, even ly­ing about it. In pub­lic testi­mony be­fore Con­gress, Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per denied that NSA’s col­lec­ted of data on mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans, a de­ceit ex­posed by rogue NSA con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden.

Obama’s ob­ses­sion with na­tion­al se­cur­ity leaks (which bump up against the pub­lic’s right to know) led to scary over­reach, the seizure of tele­phone re­cords from The As­so­ci­ated Press and the crim­in­al­iz­a­tion of a Fox News re­port­er’s in­vest­ig­a­tion on North Korea.

Since the Snowden bomb­shell, the White House has fo­cused on put­ting a pos­it­ive spin on the NSA story rather than pro­du­cing con­crete in­form­a­tion about the pro­grams.

“Trust us,” they say. “We’re the gov­ern­ment.” Well, we’re skep­tic­al.


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