President Obama has set new surveillance policy in response to
National Security Agency spying unveiled by Edward Snowden. Critics
aren’t convinced that it will make much difference.
By Brad Knickerbocker
As experts and advocates wade through the details of President Obama’s
big speech on the National Security Agency, reviews are decidedly
mixed. There’s something for everybody to like — and to dislike, it
Matt Sledge at the left-leaning Huffington Post writes, “For Snowden,
whose supporters have always maintained that he is a whistleblower
motivated by the Constitution’s higher ideals, the speech and the
changes it telegraphs will likely come as a major vindication.” Edward
Snowden, of course, is the National Security Agency (NSA)
contractor/leaker now avoiding U.S. prosecution in Russia.
Among other things, Obama said he would end the NSA’s bulk collection
of telephone metadata — numbers called, length of calls, etc. — which
has included information on millions of Americans. He also wants to
limit the spying on foreign leaders and increase the authority of the
secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Obama may have given Snowden short shrift in his speech, but the young
fugitive is the main — perhaps the only — reason Obama outlined his
intended reforms Friday.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies,
which bills itself as “a watchdog in defense of civil liberties, human
rights and constitutional limits on government power,” finds much to
like in Obama’s speech.
“We are very pleased that the President decided to institute changes
on his own and not wait for congressional action,” Ms. Martin said in
a statement. “These changes represent a significant victory for civil
liberties and privacy. They mirror the changes that many of us in the
community have been calling for.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, is skeptical —
especially regarding continued NSA snooping on citizens overseas.
“Most of the protections Obama announced today apply only to how and
when the NSA and others can look at the data,” says Mr. Roth. “What’s
the guarantee that U.S. snooping on those communications will be
limited to real national security concerns? It’s not clear from
“I doubt people in Germany or Brazil or even the U.S. are going to be
satisfied with some new hard-to-assess checks on how U.S. intelligence
uses information but no change in the fact that the U.S. is collecting
information on hundreds of millions of people in the first place,”
Roth adds in a statement.
The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), which calls itself “the
leading Internet freedom organization working at the critical edge of
policy innovation,” sees faults in Obama’s declarations regarding the
NSA as well.
“We certainly welcome judicial review of metadata queries, the support
for more transparency about surveillance, a voice for civil liberties
at the FISA Court proceedings, and greater consideration of the rights
of people outside the United States,” says Greg Nojeim, Director of
CDT’s Project on Freedom, Security and Surveillance.
But, he adds, “The lack of specifics in the President’s remarks and in
the directive he issued today means that this is only the beginning of
a much-needed conversation, not the end. At any rate,” says Mr.
Nojeim, “these proposed changes do not fully address the fundamental
problem of bulk collection of personal metadata and fail to adequately
protect the rights of people around the world.”
Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn, and Yahoo —
together they recently became the “Global Government Surveillance
Reform” coalition — have a special interest in retaining consumer
trust and confidence in the wake of Snowden’s revelations about U.S.
spying as it pertains to email, Internet use, and social media.
“The commitments outlined by President Obama represent positive
progress on key issues including transparency from the government and
in what companies will be allowed to disclose, extending privacy
protections to non-U.S. citizens, and FISA court reform,” they said in
a joint statement after the president’s speech.
But, they added, “Crucial details remain to be addressed on these
issues, and additional steps are needed on other important issues, so
we’ll continue to work with the administration and Congress to keep
the momentum going and advocate for reforms consistent with the
principles we outlined in December.”
Meanwhile, foreign governments and their leaders — some of whose
phones were tapped by U.S. intelligence services — were paying close
attention as well.
“We don’t expect him to go into great detail in a speech like this,”
said Claude Moraes, a British Labor member of the European Parliament
who’s leading the investigation into the NSA leaks, reports
Politico.com. “The concern is that while it’s very good on rhetoric,
will it end with any real change for non-U.S. actors?”
This wait-and-see attitude was virtually universal.
“We particularly welcome the willingness of President Obama to extend
safeguards currently available to U.S. citizens as regards data
collection for national security purposes to non U.S.-citizens,”
European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said in a
statement. “We will now explore the full implications of this