What to expect from Obama's NSA reforms

On Friday the president will announce rules that will avoid another Snowden, without hampering surveillance

Published January 16, 2014 4:15PM (EST)

I've noted before that even the boldest NSA reforms suggested to President Obama would not have curtailed our state of total surveillance. The reforms Obama will actually announce on Friday are weaker still.

Central to Obama's reform package is not the reining in of mass surveillance, but rather the defense of the NSA against whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden. "The Obama administration plans to overhaul the nation’s security clearance system to prevent future intelligence leaks like the one by former defense contractor Edward Snowden," the Hill reported.

The NSA will still be able to keep bulk databases -- contrary to the advice of the White House NSA review group. A number of privacy advocates had hoped to place communications data stockpiles in the hands of telecom firms or a private third party and out of the hands of the NSA. The fact that this suggestion was among the boldest made by the White House review group highlighted the upper limits of surveillance reform: The best-case scenario we were looking at still ensured that our every telephonic and online communication be hoarded and maintained in surveillable form -- if not by the spy agency itself, then by a large corporate entity. The Obama administration had no intention of dismantling the surveillance state; even sweeping reform would have simply meant the privatization of certain data collections.

But even that, according to reports, is not on the table for Friday's presidential announcement. Instead, Obama is expected to announce more stringent and regular security clearances, with the addition of a new clearance level around sensitive materials. As Kevin Gosztola noted, "It is all about perception.” The Obama administration is less interested in upholding constitutional privacy protections than it is in restoring faith in its intelligence agencies (not to mention the business interests of the U.S. tech sector, injured worldwide by the NSA revelations.)

Obama's promise of NSA reform has always been a game of optics -- in fact, he promised little else. In late December, the president commented, "There are ways we can do it, potentially, that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances — that there’s sufficient oversight and sufficient transparency.” We should take the president at his word here: The aim of NSA reform would be to give "greater assurance," not perform any structural changes. The administration wants you to feel assured; that's not the same as wanting to uphold and protect your rights. The procedures for mass data collection and FBI national security letter issuance will not be changed. That's why, as Gosztola put it, "all reforms will be cosmetic."

Meanwhile, according to reports so far, the only substantial changes to be announced Friday involve tighter security procedures to ward off whistle-blowers. The White House would sooner avoid another Snowden than address head on the content of the outrage Snowden's leaks have provoked. Obama's speech Friday will serve the purpose of a badly plastered "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster -- he wants to offer "greater assurance" when there's little reason to feel assured. The White House well knew it had to respond to cries for NSA reform. So it went through the motions: bringing together a review group, issuing a report, and now, making a public statement. We cannot be so easily placated: Do not keep calm, do not carry on.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Data Collection Edward Snowden Nsa Obama Reform Security Clearance Surveillance Whistle-blowers