Obama's NSA 'Reforms' Are Little More Than a PR Attempt to Mollify the Public

Obama is draping the banner of change over the NSA status quo. Bulk surveillance that caused such outrage will remain in place

by Glenn Greenwald

In response to political scandal and public outrage, official Washington repeatedly uses the same well-worn tactic. It is the one that has been hauled out over decades in response to many of America's most significant political scandals. Predictably, it is the same one that shaped President Obama's much-heralded Friday speech to announce his proposals for "reforming" the National Security Agency in the wake of seven months of intense worldwide controversy.

The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are "serious questions that have been raised". They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic "reforms" so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.

This scam has been so frequently used that it is now easily recognizable. In the mid-1970s, the Senate uncovered surveillance abuses that had been ongoing for decades, generating widespread public fury. In response, the US Congress enacted a new law (Fisa) which featured two primary "safeguards": a requirement of judicial review for any domestic surveillance, and newly created committees to ensure legal compliance by the intelligence community.

But the new court was designed to ensure that all of the government's requests were approved: it met in secret, only the government's lawyers could attend, it was staffed with the most pro-government judges, and it was even housed in the executive branch. As planned, the court over the next 30 years virtually never said no to the government.

Identically, the most devoted and slavish loyalists of the National Security State were repeatedly installed as the committee's heads, currently in the form of NSA cheerleaders Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the Senate and Republican Mike Rogers in the House. As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza put it in a December 2013 article on the joke of Congressional oversight, the committees "more often treat … senior intelligence officials like matinee idols".

As a result, the committees, ostensibly intended to serve an overseer function, have far more often acted as the NSA's in-house PR firm. The heralded mid-1970s reforms did more to make Americans believe there was reform than actually providing any, thus shielding it from real reforms.

The same thing happened after the New York Times, in 2005, revealed that the NSA under Bush had been eavesdropping on Americans for years without the warrants required by criminal law. The US political class loudly claimed that they would resolve the problems that led to that scandal. Instead, they did the opposite: in 2008, a bipartisan Congress, with the support of then-Senator Barack Obama, enacted a new Fisa law that legalized the bulk of the once-illegal Bush program, including allowing warrantless eavesdropping on hundreds of millions of foreign nationals and large numbers of Americans as well.

This was also the same tactic used in the wake of the 2008 financial crises. Politicians dutifully read from the script that blamed unregulated Wall Street excesses and angrily vowed to rein them in. They then enacted legislation that left the bankers almost entirely unscathed, and which made the "too-big-to-fail" problem that spawned the crises worse than ever.

And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. "Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress," he gushed with an impressively straight face. "One thing I'm certain of, this debate will make us stronger," he pronounced, while still seeking to imprison for decades the whistleblower who enabled that debate. The bottom line, he said, is this: "I believe we need a new approach."

But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of plainly cosmetic "reforms". By design, those proposals will do little more than maintain rigidly in place the very bulk surveillance systems that have sparked such controversy and anger.

To be sure, there were several proposals from Obama that are positive steps. A public advocate in the Fisa court, a loosening of "gag orders" for national security letters, removing metadata control from the NSA, stricter standards for accessing metadata, and narrower authorizations for spying on friendly foreign leaders (but not, of course, their populations) can all have some marginal benefits. But even there, Obama's speech was so bereft of specifics – what will the new standards be? who will now control Americans' metadata? – that they are more like slogans than serious proposals.

Ultimately, the radical essence of the NSA – a system of suspicion-less spying aimed at hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world – will fully endure even if all of Obama's proposals are adopted. That's because Obama never hid the real purpose of this process. It is, he and his officials repeatedly acknowledged, "to restore public confidence" in the NSA. In other words, the goal isn't to truly reform the agency; it is deceive people into believing it has been so that they no longer fear it or are angry about it.

As the ACLU's executive director Anthony Romero said after the speech:

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.

That, in general, has long been Obama's primary role in our political system and his premiere, defining value to the permanent power factions that run Washington. He prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in meaningful ways. He's not an agent of change but the soothing branding packaging for it.

As is always the case, those who want genuine changes should not look to politicians, and certainly not to Barack Obama, to wait for it to be gifted. Obama was forced to give this speech by rising public pressure, increasingly scared US tech giants, and surprisingly strong resistance from the international community to the out-of-control American surveillance state.

Today's speech should be seen as the first step, not the last, on the road to restoring privacy. The causes that drove Obama to give this speech need to be, and will be, stoked and nurtured further until it becomes clear to official Washington that, this time around, cosmetic gestures are plainly inadequate.

© 2014 The Guardian
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/17/obama-nsa-reforms-b...

Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional lawyer, he was until 2012 a contributing writer at Salon. His most recent book is, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful.

Pentagon & NSA Officials say They Want Snowden Assasinated

Pentagon & NSA Officials say They Want Snowden Extrajudicially Assassinated

by David Sirota

President Obama claims the right to extrajudicially execute American citizens, keeps a so-called “kill list,” and has bragged he’s “really good at killing people.” This isn’t bluster. Obama has backed this up with action, having killed U.S. citizens — including a 16-year-old boy – without charging, much less convicting, any of them with a single crime.

The implications are profound (and profoundly disturbing), and raise questions about Americans’ constitutional right to due process, the most basic constraints on presidential power, and our treatment of whistleblowers. Indeed, how can anyone expect those who witness executive-branch crimes to blow the whistle when the head of the executive branch asserts the right to instantly execute anyone he pleases at any time?

All of this may sound theoretical, academic, or even fantastical, straight out of a dystopian sci-fi flick. But it isn’t. It is very real. After all, only a few months ago, the chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee publicly offered to help extrajudicially assassinate NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. And now, according to a harrowing new report that just hit the Internet, top NSA and Pentagon officials are doing much the same, even after court rulings and disclosures have concluded that Snowden is a whistleblower who exposed serious government crimes.

In an article headlined “America’s Spies Want Edward Snowden Dead,” Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson reports:

‘In a world where I would not be restricted from killing an American, I personally would go and kill him myself,’ a current NSA analyst told BuzzFeed. ‘A lot of people share this sentiment.’

I would love to put a bullet in his head,’ one Pentagon official, a former special forces officer, said bluntly…

‘His name is cursed every day over here,’ a defense contractor told BuzzFeed, speaking from an overseas Intelligence collections base. ‘Most everyone I talk to says he needs to be tried and hung, forget the trial and just hang him.’

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.’

Buzzfeed characterizes this as government officials merely “seeth(ing) in very personal terms.” However, with a top legislative branch leader offering to assist in the very extrajudicial assassination now being promoted by NSA and Pentagon officials, and with the executive branch categorically asserting the right to order such an extrajudicial assassination of a U.S. citizen, this is more than mere “seething.” These are outright threats.

Think about it: As President Obama would no doubt acknowledge, the NSA and Pentagon are not independent agencies. As president he oversees and runs them. That is, they are overseen and run by the same Obama administration that has asserted the right to execute American citizens without indictment, trial or conviction. While these may just be officials speaking off the cuff, their language  (“Most everyone I talk to”/”A lot of people share this sentiment”) makes clear that their sentiment represents a pervasive culture throughout the government — again, the same government that not-so-coincidentally asserts the right to kill people in exactly the way they discuss.

It all leads back to that same harrowing question: how can Americans who witness executive-branch crimes feel comfortable or even physically safe blowing the whistle on said crimes?

The answer in the Obama era is: they can’t.

 

David Sirota is a best-selling author whose new book "Back to Our Future" is now available. He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado and is a contributing writer at Salon.com. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

 

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