The National Security Agency’s data mining program, which captures billions of “metadata” records of phone calls and other communications all over the world, has “never been subject to vigorous public debate,” Obama said from the offices of the Department of Justice.
Of course the entire program was supposed to be kept top secret.
The spotlight shown on certain spy agency practices by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks has stoked distrust of the U.S. government at a time when Obama’s approval ratings are at an all-time low.
“What I did not do is stop these programs,” Obama said, because “I felt that they made us more secure” and nothing “indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.”
“After all,” he said, “the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors. They’re our friends and family. They’ve got electronic bank and medical records like everybody else. They have kids on Facebook and Instagram.”
Obama laid out his personal opinions and proposals and a series of unilateral executive orders to tweak the electronic spy programs, further centralize their management by the executive office, and conduct more administration studies and reviews.
As Obama both praised and sought to assuage public unease over stepped-up spy operations since Sept. 11, 2001, he conceded that there have been a few problems in the distant past where U.S. spies “proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance.”
“In the 1960s, government spied on civil rights leaders and critics of the Vietnam War,” he said. He neglected to mention decades of FBI spying and disruption targeting unions, Black rights groups, socialist and other political groups that continues today.
“I have approved a new presidential directive,” Obama said, that “will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities.”
“We will reform programs and procedures in place to provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities,” he said. This involves asking the Director of National Intelligence to periodically consider declassifying some decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on spy warrant requests. Of the 1,856 secret warrant requests in 2012, the FISA court approved all, according to government information. As an example of transparency, Obama said that more than 40 such decisions have now been declassified.
Turning to the heart of the public clamor — the metadata program — Obama said, “It is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.”
But, to allay public concern, Obama said he has ordered a transition that would end the program “as it currently exists.” His idea is to switch the hosting of the huge database of phone and email information out of NSA control, possibly forcing phone and Internet corporations to keep it or contracting out to a private company. But these various options “pose difficult problems” and “more work needed to be done to determine exactly how this system might work,” he said.
In the meantime, Obama said NSA would now be required to go to the FISA court for permission whenever they wanted to access the metadata. This measure provoked some complaints among sections of the ruling class as an unnecessary bureaucratic nuisance. Obama said, he was ordering spy agencies and the attorney general to give him more ideas to consider.
Turning to Snowden’s leaks that revealed extensive U.S. spying on government leaders from Germany to Brazil Obama said he wanted to take steps “to maintain the trust and cooperation among people and leaders around the world.”
His new presidential decree, he said, should assure everyone that data from spying abroad would only be used for “legitimate national security purposes.”
But it would continue to be used for a few things, like “counterintelligence, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, cybersecurity, force protection for our troops and our allies, and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion.” The latter refers to Washington’s campaigns to impose economic hardships on people whose governments it wants to change, including Cuba, North Korea and Iran.
Foreign leaders need have no worries they will be targeted, he said, unless “there is a compelling national security purpose.”
Finally, Obama announced that he was assigning John Podesta, his counselor, to oversee yet another “comprehensive review of big data and privacy.”
Gov’t spying attack on workers’ rights
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