Effort to 'Normalize' NSA Spying, 'Mollify Public' Rebuked
"Reform" proposals designed to "make the system prettier and more politically palatable... while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged."
Appearing on a MSNBC morning news show ahead of President Obama's Friday speech on National Security Agency surveillance reforms, former NSA chief Michael Hayden explained that the president's goal for the day would not be to announce real reforms that would change the behavior of the intelligence community, but suggested a different purpose.
Obama's mission for the public address, said Hayden on Morning Joe, would not be to change what the NSA has been doing, but rather, he said, "to make people more comfortable about what it is that the intelligence agencies are doing."
"What [Obama] is really saying is: 'Trust us, trust us, trust us.'" —Michael Rattner, CCR
“I don’t know that American intelligence agencies are going to be doing a whole lot of things different in a week, a month, or a year than what they are doing right now,” he said.
Following Obama's speech, delivered at the Department of Justice later in the morning, critics of the policy announcements it contained were finding reasons to agree (at least in this part) with Hayden, a man who supports the agency's bulk collection of American communications and who led the agency under President George W. Bush.
According to analyst and MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who has given platform to aggressive critiques of the NSA bulk data collection under Obama, the president seemed to use his speech as a way "to normalize the practice off bulk collection" to a national audience.
And in his response, journalist Glenn Greenwald described the speech and Obama's "reform" proposals "as little more than a PR attempt to mollify the public." He wrote:
"[Obama] 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." —Glenn Greenwald, journalist
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.
In a devastating critique of Obama's speech and his larger presidential legacy, Greenwald makes the case that the president has played a valuable role as the national security state's highest level salesman:
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.
"This president has been dragged—kicking and screaming—to today's address. He's been very reluctant to make any concrete reforms, and unfortunately what we see today is very few concrete reforms." —Julian Assange, Wikileaks
In Hayes' interpretation of the speech, the president was doing his best not only to assuage the American people but, in fact, members of the intelligence community.
"Much of this speech," said Hayes, "was directed to members of the intelligence community, where [Obama] was like: 'I'm your friend, you guys are patriots and you guys are getting beat up, and I hear you." According to Hayes, the behind-the-scenes politics between the White House, the NSA, CIA, and the whole intelligence apparatus is as "brutal" as the politics being played out in public.
Michael Rattner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, also appeared on television directly after Obama's speech and said: "The speech really began with a bouquet of roses to the surveillance community, starting with a history of surveillance since the [American] Revolution. In my view, that's not where the speech should have started."
Where the speech should have began started, according to Rattner, "Is that Americans value the right to privacy, their Fourth Amendment rights, and yes we have to have surveillance to keep us safe," but not as an abridgement to those rights.
"The key question: will the NSA continue to monitor hundreds of millions of people without any suspicion? Under Obama's proposals: Yes." —Glenn Greenwald, journalist
Speaking to CNN, founder and publisher of Wikileaks' Julian Assange said that whatever one thinks of the reforms being put forth by Obama, one thing that should not be forgotten is that none of this would be happening "if not for the actions of Edward Snowden, and other whistleblowers before him like Thomas Drake."
These "national security whistleblowers have forced this debate," said Assange. "This president has been dragged—kicking and screaming—to today's address. He's been very reluctant to make any concrete reforms, and unfortunately what we see today is very few concrete reforms. What we see is kicking of the ball into the congressional grass; kicking it off into panels of lawyers who he will appoint and who will report back to him."
"We heard a lot of lies in this speech by Obama," said Assange who challenged the president's repeated assertion that the NSA has not abused its authorities. "Even the FISA court has said again and again, it has done just that."
In a tweet shortly after the speech, Greenwald, addressed what he thinks is one of the core issues related to bulk surveillance and privacy protections:
The key question: will the NSA continue to monitor hundreds of millions of people without any suspicion? Under Obama's proposals: yes.
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 17, 2014
The major problem with Obama's announced approach, according to Rattner, is that the president has acknowledged the government shouldn't be allowed to employ the mantra "trust us" and has agreed that privacy protections should be "built in" to the legal framework of NSA surveillance. But, observed Rattner, "when we get to the actual speech, [what Obama is] really saying is: 'Trust us, trust us, trust us.'"
"The president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data." —Anthony Romero, ACLU
And as Sen. Bernie Sanders said to CNN's Wolf Blitzer following Obama's speech, that's one of the central problems.
"I want people to think," said Sanders, "If Nixon had the resources and the technology that now exists, think of what he would have done with it."
That was a key question, in fact, that ACLU's executive director Anthony D. Romero had asked ahead of the speech. “Keeping the storage of all Americans’ data in government hands and asking ‘lawmakers to weigh in’ [... ] is passing the buck – when the buck should stop with the president. If Congress fails to act on this matter, as it has on other critical policy issues, President Obama will effectively be handing off a treasure trove of all our private data to succeeding presidents – whether it is Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, or Hillary Clinton.”
Following Obama's speech, Romero said that though his group welcomed some of the proposed changes, "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," said Romero. "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.”
And finally, Guardian journalist Spencer Ackerman, also among those who has tracked the NSA story closely from an investigative standpoint, said that his major takeaway is that Obama's speech proves that bulk metadata collection and large parts of the NSA framework have a solid future ahead, saying that though much of the rhetoric would be welcomed by its critics, the reality is that the proposals "are a gift for the National Security Agency."