“We have got to win back the trust not just of governments, but, more importantly, of ordinary citizens,” President Obama said recently at a press conference at the Hague, “And that’s not going to happen overnight, because there’s a tendency to be skeptical of government and to be skeptical of the US intelligence services.”
Nearly a year after Edward Snowden’s revelations, President Obama announced last Tuesday that his administration will be pushing legislation to curb the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of phone records. The proposed law would mark a turning point in mass surveillance but is still a far cry from a victory for privacy rights.
The proposed legislation would not end the federal government’s collection of metadata in its entirety; the government could still access such information with approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The proposal would obligate phone companies to provide records on any new calls made or received after a court order has been granted. Such metadata could be retained for a time span of 18 months.
Although the White House’s proposed legislations would make significant changes to the NSA’s current program, it does not fully address other major implications of government mass surveillance. There are still many questions left unanswered.
For instance, if the US government were to request a FISC warrant, what basic standards need to be met to obtain access? What happens if Congress does not pass the legislation or makes significant changes? President Obama can stop the bulk collection of metadata on his own, so why does he feel the need to ask Congress?
If the President truly seeks to win back the public’s trust and protect the rights of US citizens, he wouldn’t have to ask Congress to end metadata collection. His reluctance to issue such an executive order speaks volume about his character.
Rather, the Obama administration has been working hard to protect the NSA’s wide-sweeping powers beyond the public’s eye. As the New York Times’ James Risen recently commented at the George Polk Awards, the administration “is the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.” According to Risen, the administration wants to “narrow the field of national security reporting and to create a path for accepted reporting” and any journalist who surpasses the criteria for accepted reporting “will be punished.” The New York Times reporter and Fox’s James Rosen were both accused of co-conspiring with whistleblowers by the Federal Bureau Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency. In fact, several elected officials have repeatedly demonized journalists for reporting the facts of the NSA’s metadata program. For example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper accused Greenwald of criminally aiding and assisting Edward Snowden. President Obama needs to be on the forefront of protecting First Amendment rights, as he was during his tenure as a constitutional law professor.
To win back the trust of the American people, President Obama also needs to hold national security officials accountable for false testimonies. When Clapper denies that the US government “collects any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” accountability needs to be called into action by the White House. When NSA Director General Keith Alexander makes similar denials, he needs to be held accountable. President Obama’s reluctance to condemn the actions of his national security officials and his silence on the false testimonies made by them only proves his unwillingness protect privacy rights.
It may be that the President is strategic in his reforms out of fear of a terrorist response in the immediate aftermath. However, the NSA surveillance program in itself does little to prevent terrorist attacks, as the New America Foundation has reported through an in-depth analysis of hundreds of individuals that were in contact with Al-Qaeda and any related terrorist organization. The study found that the NSA’s mass surveillance programs to push forward investigations were minimally effective and that traditional methods of investigations through targeted intelligence operations, informants, and intel from local communities were far more successful.
There is a long road ahead of President Obama if he wants to win the trust of the American people. His rhetoric is no longer enough to capture the heart of the American people. He must take action and implement reforms through his executive power and jurisdiction of the NSA.