President Barack Obama responded to seven months of debate over global phone and Internet data gathering by U.S. spy agencies with a speech calling for more discussion and deliberation. Obama yesterday endorsed taking action while committing to few specifics, turning to others — Congress, his attorney general, his intelligence director, a new outside privacy panel — to propose solutions.
It’s a familiar approach. He’s used it in trying to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, setting U.S. policy for drone strikes, ending the nation’s open-ended war stance and responding to violence in Syria.
“There is a pattern, which is that on all of these issues, the president is genuinely ambivalent,” said Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council aide to presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and political science professor at Duke University. “It’s an argument between his heart and his head.”
The National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, initiated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sparked an international uproar after they were revealed in documents leaked by fugitive former contractor Edward Snowden starting last June. Obama’s next steps have implications for U.S. security and for companies involved in technology, telecommunications and the Internet.
In a 42-minute address in Washington, Obama told his audience that reconciling the competing interests of national security and personal privacy is a complicated task, made all the more difficult by rapidly changing technology and an evolving threat.
“This effort will not be completed overnight, and given the pace of technological change, we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time America has this debate,” Obama said. “But I want the American people to know that the work has begun.”
Privacy advocates and representatives of the technology industry said that while Obama’s speech marked a step in the right direction, he didn’t fulfill their goals.
Executives of Yahoo! Inc., Facebook Inc. (FB:US), Google Inc. (GOOG:US), Apple Inc. (AAPL:US), Microsoft Corp., Twitter Inc., LinkedIn Corp. and AOL Inc., who had together last month urged changes in NSA surveillance programs, said in a joint statement yesterday that Obama’s commitments represent “positive progress,” while “crucial details remain to be addressed.”
Obama defended the NSA programs as a bulwark against “real enemies and threats” and said U.S. intelligence agencies can’t be unilaterally disarm. He also promised U.S. citizens and allies would have confidence that their privacy would be protected even as major portions of the spy programs remain little changed.
He said he would require judicial review of requests to query phone call databases and ordered Justice Department and intelligence officials to devise a way to take storage of that data out of the government’s hands.
Obama left other steps to limit surveillance up to a divided Congress, meaning many of the changes may be months away if they are adopted at all.
While the U.S. House will look at any legislative plans the White House may come up with, “we will not erode the operational integrity of critical programs that have helped keep America safe,” said Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, in a statement after Obama’s address.
Obama also left out details about giving technology and civil liberties advocates more input on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and letting technology companies make public the government requests involving their customers. He also didn’t substantively address concerns about the U.S. government hacking into companies’ software.
The collection and storage of millions of telephone records, now done by the NSA, is one of the most contentious issues. Obama said that while there’s “no indication that this database has been intentionally abused,” critics are right that it could yield personal information “and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future.”
Still, the president didn’t say what solution he favored. He instead cited complications with two of the alternatives: having telecommunications companies store the data or turning it over to a yet-to-be-identified third party.
Former NSA and Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden said intelligence officials found “a lot of things to like” in Obama’s speech, which mostly was a “robust defense” of their work.
The president’s approach to change the phone metadata collection seemed designed more to comfort the public than to correct any misuses, he said.
“I understand the president’s anxiety about this,” Hayden said of U.S. spying. “When this surveillance was made public he actually stood by it and defended it. But it’s clear he’s uncomfortable with it as a person.”
To be sure, Obama isn’t so ambivalent on all national security issues.
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Obama and his aides have been vigorously pushing back in public and in private against bipartisan congressional efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran while the U.S. and other nations are in the midst of a six-month negotiating period over Iran’s nuclear program.
The president also went against some of his closest advisers when he gave approval for the raid on a compound in Pakistan that resulted in the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Obama has continued lethal U.S. drone strikes on terrorist targets in the face of opposition from some of his supporters.
O’Hanlon said Obama doesn’t always start out with the intention of deferring difficult decisions to Congress.
In the case of Guantanamo, Congress’ ability to control the purse strings mattered, and limited how far Obama could push, he said. On Syria, Obama “doesn’t want to engage,” and his turn to Congress was “a punt,” O’Hanlon said.
With the NSA programs, O’Hanlon said, looking to Congress to share in the decision making doesn’t impede an urgent fix and gives more time for reactions to cool.
“I don’t think the NSA is out of control,” O’Hanlon said. “If Congress fails to act, we can watch the national reaction and see how many people care.”
Obama calls for modest constraints on NSA surveillance programs
Obama's NSA Plans Leave Toughest Questions Up for More Debate