The NSA Speech: Obama Accepts the Logic of Staying Terrorized

If the vision he laid out Friday prevails, mass surveillance on innocents will continue and we'll never enjoy pre-9/11 privacy again.

For critics of the surveillance state, it is tempting to see President Obama's speech today as a partial victory: Prompted by Edward Snowden's leaks and the public pressure for National Security Agency reforms, he announced significant changes to the program that collects and stores information about all telephone calls. And he promised that the masses in foreign countries will enjoy new protections. The substance of these and other proposed reforms is better than nothing.

Alas, any good feelings about marginal progress are undercut by a number of factors. Most alarmingly, announcing these reforms may relieve some of the pressure on the White House to rein in the surveillance state, even though they are wholly inadequate to protect the privacy of Americans or to prevent official abuses. (This is underscored by the fact that Obama's reforms exclude so many recommendations made by the advisory panel he convened to study the matter.) James Oliphant illustrates how little is changing with particular succinctness:

After Friday, keep in mind how the status quo has, or has not, been altered:

  1. The phone metadata still exists.
  2. It will be kept, at least in the short-term, by the government until Congress figures out what to do with it. (And don’t think the telecom lobby won’t play a role in that.)
  3. It will be searched.
  4. Searches will be approved by a court with a record of being friendly to the government, one without a new privacy advocate.
  5. National security letters can still be issued by the FBI without a court order.
  6. Much of this activity will remain secret.

There is, as well, the possibility that even the inadequate reforms Obama announced today will never happen. The possibility should not be discounted, given the fact that the Guantanamo Bay prison remains open, the CIA continues to engage in semi-targeted killing, and drone strikes continue where there is significant risk of civilian casualties. A comprehensive list of War on Terror-related promises that Obama has made and broken would be much longer. Will he follow through on today's promises? The news media should not assume so. This president has used speeches just like this one as diversions before.

More broadly, today's speech is a reminder of how thoroughly Barack Obama has been co-opted by the national-security state, compared to his days as a U.S. senator, when he so eloquently articulated the dangerous excesses of the War on Terror. (Today's most striking example is the way he described the CIA's torture of prisoners during the Bush Administration as "enhanced interrogation techniques." His deference to the CIA's feelings certainly has blossomed.)

What's wrong with the story Obama now tells about surveillance? Several significant things, actually.

The president began his speech on NSA reform by harkening back to "the dawn of our republic," when a small, secret "surveillance committee" was established in Boston. "The group’s members included Paul Revere," he said, "and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids." In this telling, the patriots, literal revolutionaries rebelling against the government of their day, were forerunners of the National Security Agency.

That is egregious historical malpractice. In fact, King George's colonial overseers and the general warrants they enforced are much closer analogues to domestic-surveillance efforts today. Had colonial governors had access to five years of communications metadata and "two-hop" network analysis, it is highly likely that they would've arrested the Founding Fathers, tried them for treason, and sentenced them to death for their crimes. 

Obama is on firmer ground a bit later in his speech, when he talks about the importance of codebreakers during World War II and the subsequent need for foreign intelligence during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was significant. But his segue from the end of the Cold War to the War on Terror is a foundation more wobbly than much of America is yet willing to recognize. Yes, terrorism poses a scary threat to our safety. But as horrific as the September 11 attacks were, as much as we mourn the 3,000 people who died in those attacks, and as much as we ought to guard against future attacks, the loss suffered that day is not comparable to the existential threat posed by the U.S.S.R. The balance between security and liberty ought to be tilting toward the latter, even as surveillance on a scale unprecedented in U.S. history is expanded yearly.

The whole War on Terror has unfolded according to similar illogic. National-security leaders behave as if preventing even a single terrorist attack is so important that, to marginally decrease its likelihood, it was incumbent upon us to torture prisoners, invade Iraq, and establish a system of mass surveillance on hundreds of millions of innocents to identify a tiny minority of terrorists. So long as the NSA is charged with stopping every Boston bombing-style attack, and given more power until it can do so, it will verge toward totalitarianism, because no society can stay free and eliminate the risk of terrorism. That truth is one that can never be found in Obama's speeches. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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