Obama's NSA reforms: The devil in the details

In a game of realpolitik, Obama puts forward no substantial surveillance reforms, just a gambit for public trust

Published January 17, 2014 6:30PM (EST)

Obama's speech on the National Security Agency Friday charted, at most every turn, a predictable path. He called upon notable moments in U.S. history to frame the question of surveillance, he made claims from national security to defend the NSA, he made qualified announcements about reforms to come, he even pointed a finger at those baddies in Russia and China, who most certainly hate freedom and privacy more than the U.S. government -- rest assured. It was oration straight out of the president of the United States handbook.

To be sure, Obama put forward a number of concrete reforms on Friday. They are the stuff of realpolitik: fiddling with the details of surveillance procedures in response to public concern, without enacting any deep structural shift to the government's hoarding complex when it comes to communications data. Indeed, Obama himself said Friday, "those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties. The challenge is getting the details right, and that’s not simple."

This was the crux of Obama's performance today: An argument for fiddling with details to placate both outraged privacy advocates and national security hawks. But we all know where the devil resides, so Obama's focus on "details" is all important: Without scrutiny, debates over the details of NSA reform could distract us from the fact that our state of totalized surveillance is going nowhere.

For a detailed report on Obama's suggested reforms, see here. My aim here is to put the president's words and promised reforms into some context. Essentially, Obama has vowed to keep surveillance practices largely intact, while improving oversight. He stated that more transparency would be demanded of the shadowy FISA court, including possibly declassifying orders and demanding greater transparency for national security letters. There will be more panels, there will be more reviews ("Reviews on reviews on reviews. You'd be forgiven for wondering if Obama has been president for five years," noted the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman on Twitter.)

While sources close to the White House had suggested before the president's speech that he would not address the moving of bulk metadata collections out of government hands, Obama gestured toward this possibility. The president's remarks on this point were importantly qualified. "I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists," he said -- the "currently exists" is crucial: It's an assertion that the phone data hoarding will certainly continue, but likely with some tweaks.

In regards to moving these vast databases into the hands of private entities, Obama noted "more work needs to be done to determine exactly how this system might work." But, as I've noted previously, this is no end to sprawling mass surveillance, just a potential shift in which arm of the corporate-government surveillance nexus holds our communications data. It would not be an insignificant move, but it wouldn't even marginally dismantle the surveillance state.

Obama made two related reforms effective Friday:

Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.

As ever, we should remain critical about what sort of "judicial finding" counts as sufficient -- and how shadowy such a process might be -- as well as what gets to count as a "true emergency" in this epoch of unbounded, unending war. It's impossible to know at this point if these reforms will do any work in securing privacy, or are simply an exercise in noblesse oblige in the face of public outrage.

As well as reiterating anger at whistle-blower Ed Snowden for prompting "sensational" stories, Obama couched his reform announcements in rhetorical jingoism. "No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account," Obama said. Go Team USA?

"The reforms I'm proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected," said the president. And therein lies the rub. As he said in December, the administration wants to give the public "greater assurance," "greater confidence" in the wake of a historic scandal. It's a game of political optics that asks for trust without structurally shifting the techniques of government that rightfully bred distrust when revealed. The president performed a subtle rhetorical dance today in attempt to gain our "confidence"; he said as much himself. And in a certain way, he has shored up my confidence: my confidence in the fact that we remain always-already surveilled and that the state wouldn't have it any other way.

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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