Bullied into action by Edward Snowden — no hero or traitor, he — President Obama might finally get one thing right about the Surveillance State. To borrow a favorite phrase, he might be on the right side of history.
The New York Times reported today that the White House will ask Congress to end the National Security Agency’s open-ended collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. Under the proposal, the bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. The NSA could seize specific records only with a judge’s permission.
It’s an important step, but Obama still must show he can be transparent, trusted, and effective. Will he be better about revealing and explaining the administration’s national security methods?
Will his administration stop parsing, deceiving, and lying unnecessarily about intelligence programs? Will the worst offenders (read: James Clapper) be held accountable?
Will his bill become law? It could track the Obama-era pattern: a public-relations salve followed by legislative failure.
Let’s hope Obama succeeds. The national security community must be both well armed and fully supported by the American public to counter existential threats in a post-9/11 world. For instance, the ability to trace and analyze the phone records of suspected terrorists and their associates could save lives — and in certain circumstances, with proper checks and balances, the process might include the records of Americans.
The Obama plan, as described by Charlie Savage of The Times, adjusts the balance between security and liberty:
The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said.
They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies.
The N.S.A. now retains the phone data for five years. But the administration considered and rejected imposing a mandate on phone companies that they hold on to their customers’ calling records for a period longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require — a burden that the companies had resisted shouldering and that was seen as a major obstacle to keeping the data in their hands. A senior administration official said that intelligence agencies had concluded that the operational impact of that change would be small because older data is less important.
The intelligence community argues that the current program does not constitute spying on Americans, because actual telephone calls are not monitored. First, do you believe them? Second, in a mega-data world, the bulk collection and analysis of telephone records yield to the government vast amounts of personal information. It’s spying. It needs to be done sparingly and under the type of check-and-balance approach suggested in the new Obama plan.
Obama’s bill will compete with others on Capitol Hill that would authorize the current program with only minor changes. Minor fixes aren’t enough. To protect the Constitution and his legacy, Obama must do more than propose a full overhaul. He must win it.
Privacy advocates and liberals might call Obama’s capitulation a victory for Snowden. I wouldn’t. I’m still where I was nine months ago, when I dismissed the hero-or-traitor debate and said the focus should be on surveillance programs launched by President Bush after 9/11 and expanded under Obama.
Love him or hate him, we all owe Snowden our thanks for forcing upon the nation an important debate. But the debate shouldn’t be about him. It should be about the gnawing questions his actions raised from the shadows.
In the end, fear and politics likely will prevail, as it has in America’s past. Washington elites will close ranks to protect the Surveillance State, to trample out transparency and to mislead the public. Maybe we can talk first?
So now we’ve talked, and now Obama has a bill, and not much else has been done. The Surveillance State is well protected and winning.
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Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.
Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”
Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."
In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-expected primary battle behind her, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) is no longer going on the air in upcoming primary states. “Team Clinton hasn’t spent a single cent in … California, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “campaign has spent a little more than $1 million in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone backer in the Senate, said the candidate should end his presidential campaign if he’s losing to Hillary Clinton after the primary season concludes in June, breaking sharply with the candidate who is vowing to take his insurgent bid to the party convention in Philadelphia.”
The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."