Obama Takes First Step In Reforming NSA Surveillance

In a speech today, President Obama called for an overhaul of the NSA’s phone data collection program. The full text is here and the proposals are summarized here. There are meaningful improvements, including requiring a court order to obtain phone data, which will be held by a third party, and proceedings before the FISA court will become more adversarial with arguments made counter to the government’s arguments by a panel of public advocates.

Glenn Greenwald has some valid criticism and deserves credit for his work in bringing Edward Snowden’s revelations to the public. As has often been the case regarding Obama, I believe he is also underestimating the value of these reforms. It must be kept in mind that this issue is about what the NSA has done wrong, not about one’s opinion of Glenn Greenwald. I am finding that Greenwald’s sometimes overzealous attacks on Obama have led many liberals to automatically reject whatever he has to say, and I fear that this is contributing to the attitude of some liberals to fail to take the NSA revelations with the seriousness they deserve.

The American Civil Liberties Union has issued this statement, also arguing that Obama has not gone far enough:

President Obama today announced changes to some aspects of the NSA’s surveillance programs and left others in place. Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, had this reaction:

“The president’s speech outlined several developments which we welcome. Increased transparency for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, improved checks and balances at the FISA court through the creation of a panel of advocates, and increased privacy protections for non-U.S. citizens abroad – the first such assertion by a U.S. president – are all necessary and welcome reforms.

“However, the president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling. The president outlined a process to study the issue further and appears open to alternatives. But the president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution. The president’s own review panel recommended that bulk data collection be ended, and the president should accept that recommendation in its entirety.”

A new chart comparing the ACLU’s proposals, President Obama’s announcement, and the USA FREEDOM Act (a bipartisan bill currently pending in Congress) is at:

ACLU Action is demanding an end to dragnet surveillance at:

I do think that Glenn Greenwald could learn from the manner in which the ACLU both acknowledged the favorable aspects of Obama’s proposals while calling for greater reforms. This has been the general attitude which I have seen so far among liberal critics of NSA surveillance. Such an attitude is also more likely to bring about greater unity on the left for reform as opposed to his attacks which are causing some liberals to discount the entire issue.

The fact that Obama made this speech is further evidence of the value of Edward Snowden’s work, and I feel provides further vindication for his actions. Needless to say, many in the intelligence community do not agree, some having fantasies of dealing with Snowden as would be done in a third rate spy thriller:

One Army intelligence officer even offered BuzzFeed a chillingly detailed fantasy.

“I think if we had the chance, we would end it very quickly,” he said. “Just casually walking on the streets of Moscow, coming back from buying his groceries. Going back to his flat and he is casually poked by a passerby. He thinks nothing of it at the time starts to feel a little woozy and thinks it’s a parasite from the local water. He goes home very innocently and next thing you know he dies in the shower.”

There is no indication that the United States has sought to take vengeance on Snowden, who is living in an undisclosed location in Russia without visible security measures, according to a recent Washington Post interview. And the intelligence operators who spoke to BuzzFeed on the condition of anonymity did not say they expected anyone to act on their desire for revenge. But their mood is widespread, people who regularly work with the intelligence community said.

Granted this is just anonymous talk and no action has been taken, but this attitude does reinforce the need to keep the intelligence community under control, and could even be argued to represent further evidence that Snowden was right in his actions.

This all occurs a day after the latest revelations released by Edward Snowden that the NSA collects millions of text messages.


  1. 1
    David Duff says:

    “increased privacy protections for non-U.S. citizens abroad”!
    Why would you protect the privacy of *non*-US citizens whether they were abroad or not, particularly if your security services suspect them of anti-American activities?
    “proceedings before the FISA court will become more adversarial with arguments made counter to the government’s arguments by a panel of public advocates.”
    So you have some Left-wing lawyers who will be let in on the fact that so-and-so is having their phone tapped because of suspicions that he might be working for a foreign power?  And you trust those lawyers not to squeal!  Well, good luck with that!
    “But the president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data.”
    So you have to prove your suspect’s guilt *before* you can tap their e-mails!  And storing data is one thing, reading it is another.  When (not if!) some scallywag is *suspected* of trying to import some dirty uranium into ‘Noo Yawk’ it will be impossible to check his communications because you have failed to store it.  Brilliant!
    “some having fantasies of dealing with Snowden as would be done in a third rate spy thriller”
    No fantasy, it was actually done on a London street with an umbrella with a poisoned tip: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgi_Markov
    Also, more recently another Russian émigré killed with a radio-active drink: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisoning_of_Alexander_Litvinenko
    I suspect your naiveté  is shared by very many of your fellow Americans who seem to have no idea what goes on in the real, big, bad world out there.  And that’s before the Chinese really get going!

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Fantasies in the sense that they are talking about things they will not actually do–if we can count on their statements of feeling bound by laws against killing Americans–not out of lack of knowledge that such killings have occurred. The real naiveté is on the part of people such as yourself who fail to see the civil liberties concerns here and are too close-minded to consider potential remedies.

  3. 3
    David Duff says:

    One ‘civil liberty’ I do enjoy and very much appreciate is not being blown to shreds on a London tube-train.  If the price for that is HMG storing my and everybody else’s communications,  then I’ll put up with it!

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    You are missing the key fact that this was not found to be necessary to reduce the risk of a terrorist attack.

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