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
See more stories about...
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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4631) }}

What We're Following See More »
Transportation Sec. Names Special Adviser for Metro System
6 hours ago

"Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has appointed a veteran legal insider with strong personal ties to the Obama administration to serve as his special adviser focused exclusively on fixing the Washington region’s troubled Metro system. Kathryn Thomson, who was expected to leave her job as the Department of Transportation’s top lawyer, instead will stay on as Foxx’s special adviser on Metro oversight." She'll start this week.

SCOTUS Finds Racial Bias in Jury Selection
9 hours ago

"The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that prosecutors in Georgia violated the Constitution by striking every black prospective juror in a death penalty case against a black defendant. The vote was 7 to 1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting. The case, Foster v. Chatman, No. 14-8349, arose from the 1987 trial of Timothy T. Foster, an African-American facing the death penalty for killing Queen Madge White, an elderly white woman, when he was 18."

Congressional Report Says NFL Tried To Influence Concussion Study
9 hours ago

report from House Democrats charges that NFL officials retracted funding for a $16 million NIH study on head injuries after repeated unsuccessful attempts to direct the money away from a Boston University researcher and instead to scientists who might be more favorable to the league. Democrats have been trying to go after the NFL over its handling of concussion science, although the sport's popularity and increased lobbying presence has made that difficult. The new revelations about meddling in the NIH study should offer more ammo. 

SCOTUS Denies Appeal from Virginia GOP
11 hours ago

"A unanimous Supreme Court has dismissed a Republican appeal over congressional districts in Virginia. The justices on Monday left in place a decision by a lower court that said Virginia illegally packed black voters into one district to make adjacent districts safer for Republican incumbents." The Court said the Republican elected officials who challenged the decision did not have standing to do so.

How Much Has Trump Loaned His Campaign?
16 hours ago

"More than $43 million, although the loans are loans in name only — Trump says he has no intention of recouping the cash."