What Obama Says Today Will Determine the Future of the NSA

Privacy-rights advocates will either be rejoicing after the president’s news conference. Or giving up on him entirely.

President Barack Obama takes a hard line on the debt ceiling debate in a White House Press conference January 14, 2013. (Richard A. Bloom)
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Dec. 20, 2013, 6:20 a.m.

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.

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