- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
Barack Obama held a press conference on Friday afternoon, supposedly to announce reforms of the NSA’s far-flung surveillance programs. In reality, the White House briefing was the start of a marketing campaign for the spy programs that have turned so controversial in recent months. And the president’s message really boiled down to this: It’s more important to persuade people surveillance is useful and legal than to make structural changes to the programs.
"The question is, how do I make the American people more comfortable?" Obama said.
Not that Obama’s unwilling to make any changes to America’s surveillance driftnets — and he detailed a few of them — but his overriding concern was that people didn’t believe him when he said there was nothing to fear.
In an awkward analogy, the president said that if he’d told his wife Michelle that he had washed the dishes after dinner, she might not believe him. So he might have to take her into the kitchen and show her the evidence.
The tour of the NSA’s kitchen appeared today in the form of two "white papers," one produced by the Justice Department, another by the NSA, that offered a robust defense of the legal basis for the programs, and their value, but offered practically no new details to the administration’s already public defense. If the president meant to offer more proof that the programs really are fine, it was not to be found in the information his administration released today.
What structural alterations the president said he is willing to make to the surveillance regime mostly took the form of initial sketches and broad commitments to balance "security and liberty." In perhaps his biggest concession, Obama said he was willing to consider changing procedures in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes NSA surveillance, so that an opposing position to the government’s could be heard in certain circumstances. Without committing to any specifics, he also said he’d work with Congress to "pursue appropriate reforms" to the bulk phone records program. And Obama announced he’d convene an independent review board on the state of national security technology and its role in modern society. (It might take the form of this one, which was convened a decade ago.)
But these changes, while not merely cosmetic, have already been proposed by members of Congress and outside experts. The president offered no proposals to fundamentally change the surveillance programs, because as far as he’s concerned, they don’t need to be changed.
Now if he could just make everyone see that.
Friday was a start. In his most extensive remarks to date about the controversy over surveillance programs that has dogged his administration, President Obama sought to assuage his critics, and the public at large, that there is nothing to fear from the National Security Agency. And he should know, because he’s the president.
"If you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying ‘U.S, Big Brother looking down on you,’" Obama said at an afternoon White House press conference, "understandably people would be concerned. I would be too if I wasn’t inside the government."
The crux of the president’s message rested on his fundamental and considered belief that the NSA’s global surveillance programs, including those that collect the phone records of millions of Americans, are both legal and tightly regulated. The president, who as a candidate railed against the intelligence excesses of the NSA under George W. Bush, said today that he’d been skeptical of those programs, and that once in office, having had the chance to review them, found that they were essential.
"The two programs at issue offer valuable intelligence that helps us protect the American people and they’re worth preserving," Obama said, referring to the bulk collection of phone records and electronic surveillance of foreigners overseas, which frequently sweeps in the communications of American citizens.
Obama resisted any suggestion that the leaks by former NSA-contractor Ed Snowden had caused him to rethink his position. Indeed, he said he’d initiated a review of intelligence programs before Snowden began providing details about them to the press two months ago. As a result, Obama said he decided to "tighten some bolts" by adding additional layers of oversight of secretive intelligence gathering.
And it was those steps, he said, as well as the constitutional system of checks and balances that has kept the NSA from violating Americans’ privacy, overstepping legal bounds, or reverting to the kinds of domestic spying that were a hallmark of darker days, when the intelligence community routinely spied on some Americans to monitor their political activities. The programs are useful, legal, and working just fine, he insisted.
But, Obama allowed, not everyone in the country is so confident.
"It’s not enough for me as the President to have confidence in these programs. The American people have to have confidence in them as well."