Obama’s big speech on NSA surveillance falls flat

 Young Americans for Liberty

President Barack Obama continues to play defense amid privacy concerns over the expansive surveillance of American citizens that his administration has carried out.

During a White House press conference on Friday afternoon, President Obama laid out a series of steps that he would be taking to ensure that Americans’ civil liberties are protected, which he hoped would help make the public better understand the surveillance programs his administration is using to spy on them.

He told the media that he would work with Congress to reform the controversial section of the PATRIOT Act that the intelligence community has used far past congressional intent. He also said that he would push to have an “independent voice” to challenge the government if civil liberties are threatened.

On its face, what President Obama said was encouraging. But after reading the speech and subsequent answers to the media, there is still much about which to be discouraged. The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that the “devil is in the details,” and questions whether the proposed reforms will be meaningful.

But President Obama made several absurd notions during his speech, most notably that the debate over the NSA’s surveillance programs would have happened even if they weren’t leaked by Edward Snowden. Timothy Lee disputed that at the Washington Post, noting that intelligence officials refused to answer questions from members of Congress about the program, with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper going so far as to lie to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) when asked about the existence of datamining program in a March congressional hearing.

What’s more, reforms to the PATRIOT Act have already been proposed. Just last month, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) introduced an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have limited the NSA’s spying to only individuals suspected of terrorist activity. President Obama and the intelligence community opposed it.

Amash’s amendment was defeated, but just barely. But the strong sense in Congress that something has to be done to protect Americans’ civil liberties sent a strong message to President Obama.

But when it all comes down to it, President Obama still seems like he is only paying lip service to civil liberties. Sen. Wyden, one of the strongest civil libertarians in Congress, expressed optimism about the President’s speech, but noted that the proposals don’t go far enough.

The New York Times’ editorial board was also expressed the sense that President Obama isn’t taking the issue seriously. “Fundamentally, Mr. Obama does not seem to understand that the nation needs to hear more than soothing words about the government’s spying enterprise,” they wrote. “He suggested that if ordinary people trusted the government not to abuse their privacy, they wouldn’t mind the vast collection of phone and e-mail data.”

“Bizarrely, he compared the need for transparency to showing his wife that he had done the dishes, rather than just telling her he had done so. Out-of-control surveillance is a bit more serious than kitchen chores,” they added. “It is the existence of these programs that is the problem, not whether they are modestly transparent. As long as the N.S.A. believes it has the right to collect records of every phone call…then none of the promises to stay within the law will mean a thing.”

As Judge Andrew Napolitano said in response to President Obama’s speech, the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent exactly the kind of intrusion the government committing against Americans today.

While there is no question that intelligence agencies should be allowed to gather information on terrorist threats, they have to abide by the law and respect the civil liberties protected by the Constitution.

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