Friday, January 17, 2014

Obama proposes NSA reforms to protect and perpetuate the surveillance state

By Michael J.W. Stickings

By now, you probably know that President Obama gave a major speech today in which he called for reforms to NSA surveillance:

President Obama, acknowledging that high-tech surveillance poses a threat to civil liberties, announced significant changes Friday to the way the government collects and uses telephone records, but left in place many other pillars of the nation’s intelligence programs.

Responding to the clamor over sensational disclosures about the National Security Agency's spying practices, Mr. Obama said he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to phone records, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But in a speech at the Justice Department that seemed more calculated to reassure audiences at home and abroad than to force radical change, Mr. Obama defended the need for the broad surveillance net assembled by the N.S.A. And he turned to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves to work out the details of any changes.

Yes, fine, the president is trying to strike a middle ground between enthusiasts of a mostly unregulated surveillance state and those calling for a significant rollback of surveillance so as to protect civil liberties, but for the most part his speech put him firmly on the side of the former. He will make it more difficult for the NSA to access data, but he has no intention of stopping it from doing what it's doing, and in that sense he is merely trying to ensure that surveillance continues in more or less exactly the same way it has been conducted up to now.

And indeed, he's really only doing this because Edward Snowden, whom I consider a hero, blew the lid off what the NSA is doing and aroused both public and political opposition to the surveillance state. If it hadn't been for Snowden, this wouldn't be happening -- people would still be in the dark, nothing would have changed, and we wouldn't even be getting these mostly superfluous "reforms."

Glenn Greenwald, as one might expect, gets it right:

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.

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.

It's all about public relations, you see, about spinning lies that the American people are supposed to believe will make everything okay. But nothing much will change. And that's just what President Obama apparently wants, because he's a champion of the surveillance state just like his predecessor and just like most of the political class that runs the country.

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