One of the things Americans should have learned about President Barack Obama is that his words are more impressive than his actions. He is unmatched rhetorically, but too often his words have done little except raise expectations.
We hope that is not the case with his remarks last week about injecting needed transparency into the National Security Agency’s cyber-surveillance. What’s missing is a commitment to stop snooping on people who are doing nothing wrong and giving absolutely no “probable cause.”
The president made several proposals that sound good. What’s less clear is whether he was sincere and will follow through or whether his goal was merely to appease critics of the NSA.
He said he would seek reform of the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which deals with the collection of phone records. He also said that the NSA would establish a civil-liberties office and promised to authorize a civil liberties advocate for the secret FISA court, which issues warrants that sometimes compromise civil liberties.
President Obama also promised to name a group of outside experts to review “our entire intelligence and communication technologies.” What he didn’t say was that the panel would be led by James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, who has lost considerable credibility for telling members of Congress that the United States does not “collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”
In fact few officials associated with the NSA, including President Obama, have much credibility on the topic. Given revelations about the collection of “metadata” and the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News, Americans have reason to wonder whether they can do anything during the course of a day that the government doesn’t see or hear.
The president himself seems ambivalent about the spying. Last week he sounded sympathetic with Americans who fear “U.S. Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, etc.” At the same time, he defended the most controversial programs, including Section 215, saying they offer “valuable intelligence…” and “are worth preserving.” Those are the words of someone who might support greater transparency but is unlikely to pursue genuine changes.
Unfortunately, Americans shouldn’t expect much help from Congress. In the past two years, Congress has twice rejected amendments to the Patriot Act that would require disclosure on the breadth of the spying on Americans.
We’ve apparently mastered the art of spying; that’s good. What’s not so good is that we’ve paid too little attention to the 9/11 Commission’s admonition that civil liberties as well as our homeland need protection.