Last week, President Obama called a press conference and delivered a speech highlighting his position on NSA surveillance and the actions that he will take to bring more “public confidence” to the system.
The speech was strategically timed to occur on a late Friday afternoon — it avoids the full impact of weekday news and allows Obama to escape all subsequent criticism as he vacations on Martha’s Vinyard. More important, however, the speech shows a president who doesn’t understand the root cause of Americans’ concerns with the system.
Obama initially stated that he was “comfortable that the program currently is not being abused,” but adding that on account of the passionate debate being raised on the issue, he would place more internal oversight on the NSA, the FISA court, and the collection of data under section 215 of the 1978 FISA. This reflects a similar stance that the president has taken on the debate in the past, repeatedly arguing that constitutional safeguards were already in place in the system — but they had to remain hidden from the public.
The president fails to grasp that the strongest constitutional protection is transparency. So-called protections, if their actions are kept secret, are worthless, since they cannot be held accountable to the law. The creation of the FISA court, for instance, was supposed to be a protection for the public by requiring NSA requests to be presented before a judge. However, the covert functions of the court allowed it to become a yes man to the NSA, without having anyone cry wolf.
Additionally, as part of these reforms, Obama promised a treat: an NSA operating manual that would place the activities of the agency “in context,” both legally and practically. The subsequent release by the NSA surely provided the effect. The report stated that the NSA “touches” 1.6% of all worldwide internet traffic, a much smaller number than the documents leaked by Snowden presented. However, even if their word is to be taken, the argument that this figure, which amounts to 29.216 petabytes, is an insignificant number, is a strange perspective. For comparison, one petabyte can store the DNA of every person in the United States, thrice over.
Moreover, PRISM, the tool that the NSA used for online surveillance, is not specified to search every single nook and cranny of the internet, but rather real-time communications such as email. In March of 2011, this sector of the internet accounted for 16.6% of all traffic in North America, meaning that the NSA would pick-up around 1 out of every 10 emails.
This seems to be a more accurate figure, since it was revealed that the NSA had alleged the right to target the communications of all Americans which transcended international borders, without a warrant, under section 702 of the FISA. Although the NSA had previously argued that this did not mean that they collected information on US citizens, today they changed their position, stating that “[f]or a variety of reasons, including technical ones, the communications of US persons are sometimes incidentally acquired in targeting the foreign entities.”
Theses instances are much more than incidental. As was reported last week, the NSA lends its aid to the Department of Drug Enforcement to conduct surveillance on domestic drug users and traffickers.
The president and the intelligence community seem to simply not be able to tell the truth, even when the facts are already with the public. As the president said during the conference, “given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance,” and he has confirmed this fact.
A system of governmental checks and balances have been proven to be pointless in a system that rewards further intrusions and the trampling of civil liberties. Although the NSA might state that its “personnel are obligated to report when they believe [the agency] is not, or may not be, acting consistently with law, policy, or procedure”, the nation knows this to be false. Public transparency of NSA activities is the only reform that can fix the system.
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