Obama’s NSA Speech: More Politics Than Policy Reform

By: Jeff Addicott
Jeff Addicott’s Terrorism Law Report

Throughout his Administration, President Obama has been more about political expediency than real policy reform, and today’s speech addressing proposed changes to how the National Security Agency goes about gatherings its information was merely more of the same.

The controversy over the revelations that the NSA has been spying on Americans has proved embarrassing for the President, and so today’s speech was made in large part to address the controversy.

Though I’ve long since maintained that it’s important to balance the need for civil liberties with the need for increased lawful security, living in a post-9/11 world makes it necessary for us to err on the side of security. And I’ve also long since maintained that if you’re trying to stop a terrorist attack at the airport, you very well may be too late – therefore, those in charge of national security should be able to use any tools available to stop terrorist plans before they manifest into full-fledged attacks.

But today’s list of policy changes from President Obama don’t substantively change how the United States goes about its business of gathering domestic intelligence. Though U.S. spy agencies will no longer hold call records, the government can still access this information whenever it needs to – which doesn’t materially change how the information collected will be reviewed or used.

Substantive changes in laws governing surveillance should come from Congress, be it via amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or through new legislation to deal specifically with digital and cell phone communications. It’s not surprising that President Obama would opt to create new policy on his own rather than to work in a bipartisan manner with Congress to collaborate on this crucial issue.

And it also won’t be surprising if these measures don’t help President Obama regain the trust of the American public, be it on behalf of the National Security Agency or in his ability to strike the right balance between security and liberty. This Administration promised to be the most transparent in the history of the United States, and it’s failed to live up to this promise. And even if President Obama were offering up real reform in today’s speech, the American public is firmly in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” camp – and the measures being offered today will hardly be worth watching.

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