Unfortunately for those concerned about the bulk collection of private communications by the government, the Obama administration just doesn't see another way to conduct its spy business.
When it came to the question of neoliberal capitalism it was former British PM Margaret Thatcher who famously declared, "There is no alternative."
Now—in the face of growing concern and criticism over the global dragnet surveillance programs run by the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies determined to "collect it all"—it is the Obama White House saying, in effect, the same thing.
As the New York Times reports Tuesday, after six months of one revelation after another regarding the far-reaching nature of the nation's spy apparatus, "President Obama and his top advisers have concluded that there is no workable alternative to the bulk collection of huge quantities of 'metadata,' including records of all telephone calls made inside the United States."
Though they admit to putting current NSA programs and procedures under review, there is little to indicate the president is willing to publicly push back against the agency's continued demand that it be allowed access to huge swaths of the digital and telephonic communication networks both inside and outside of the U.S.
As the Times reports:
The administration’s reviews are being conducted in secrecy in part because of the secret nature of the N.S.A.’s operations. Initially, the reviews focused on domestic “bulk collection” programs begun after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which eventually led to the N.S.A. program to collect the billing records of all calls, and, for a while, to collect a large volume of emails as well. (The email program ended, the N.S.A. says, in 2011.) In an interview last month, General Alexander said he was “open” to any alternative to having the government maintain that database of calls.
But General Alexander’s deputy, John C. Inglis, who has spent nearly three decades at the N.S.A. focused on the technology of intercepting and decoding foreign communications, told Congress last week that so far there was no satisfying alternative to a government library of calls and, seemingly by extension, text messages and many Internet searches.
“It needs to be the whole haystack,” Mr. Inglis said. If the United States was looking for the communications of a terrorism suspect, he said, “it needs to be such that when you make a query you come away confident that you have the whole answer.”
Movement for tough reforms in Congress is little better, with some of the proposals that have been offered greeted as non-reform "reforms" by those most critical of NSA overreach.
Responding to a recently introduced bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a longtime defender of the NSA and head of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Trevor Timm said that the proposal, instead of putting a check on the NSA, would actually codify "some of the agency's worst practices."
"Don't be fooled," Timm argued. Feinstein's bill "would be a huge setback for everyone’s privacy, and it would permanently entrench the NSA’s collection of every phone record held by U.S. telecoms. We urge members of Congress to oppose it."
The Times reports that a "senior administration official" (unnamed, of course) said Obama “has already made some decisions” of his own about possible "reforms" but the details of those have not been announced and the reporting makes clear that there is no movement inside the White House to push further than the milquetoast changes offered by Feinstein.
More hope is being put into a bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) in the Senate and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner in the House, called the USA Freedom Act, which has received a more welcome backing from civil liberty groups and privacy advocates.
So far, however, the president has chosen not to endorse the contours of that package and its future in Congress remains, like so much else when it comes to the NSA, a mystery.