Before it got overshadowed by David Remnick’s epic New Yorker profile of President Obama, the big news involving the White House was the President’s speech on NSA surveillance on Friday, in which he addressed criticisms about the scope of the program and proposed some ideas for reform.
Reactions from journalists and experts ranged from cautious optimism, to frustrated disappointment, to a what-did-you-expect kind of resigned acceptance. Some news outlets, reporting on the speech from both sides of the reporting-versus-opinion wall, managed to hit all these notes at once.
ProPublica, a formidable force for transparency on the surveillance beat for years, preempted the speech early Friday morning with a rundown, rampant with links. The “Four Questionable Claims Obama Has Made on NSA Surveillance” that ProPublica’s Kara Brandeisky highlighted included misleading statements the President has made about truly fundamental truths—including exactly how the NSA’s surveillance works, how useful that surveilled information has been, and how Edward Snowden blew the whistle. This one is a must-read if you’ve missed it.
Then, during the speech on Friday morning, The Guardian and The New York Times both ran very thorough live blogs online, containing summaries, analyses, and commentary. The Times version, written by Charlie Savage and David E. Sanger, was full of direct quotes and very straightforward. The Guardian’s, overseen by Spencer Ackerman, was much more colorful—setting the tone even before the speech began by linking out to Twitter pictures of protesters outside the Department of Justice and predictions from progressive blogger Marcy Wheeler.
Later, the Times also guessed at what speech responses would be from tech giants Google, Microsoft, and others, without actually getting any (in short: they’re probably not happy). And Peter Baker dissected the “crucial caveat” of the second half of President’s Obama’s vow to “end” the bulk telephone data program “as it currently exists.” The Washington Post hit the speech from several angles as well, including reporting from Scott Wilson, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller and a “plain English” version by tech writer Brian Fung.
The most helpful news analyses were those that broke down, piece by piece, the different aspects of the NSA’s surveillance program, the criticisms of each, and then the White House’s response to each—and in this, the Times and the Guardian continued to lead. With so many scoops and storylines having come out of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, it’s often difficult to keep up with all of them, and President Obama’s speech certainly didn’t address them all. So the Times’s clean and simple graphic was a useful tool to make sense of the mess, as was the Guardian’s “six major areas of concern” post by James Ball.
On the more opinionated side of the internet, Glenn Greenwald—whose response is now so much in demand that he sometimes appears to break the laws of physics—published an appropriately scathing column in his old home The Guardian Friday afternoon (it’s likely the best and fastest way for him to get his thoughts across at length until Pierre Omidyar’s forthcoming news outlet launches). His headline, and its purposeful use of scare quotes, says it all: “Obama’s NSA ‘reforms’ are little more than a PR attempt to mollify the public.” He lambasts Obama and so many other DC leaders for responding to public criticism by making things “prettier and more politically palatable” with “reforms” that have no real effect other than calming dissent.
Greenwald certainly wasn’t alone in his skepticism, though other writers’ tones were slightly less acidic. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones called Obama’s plan “Pretty Weak Tea.” John Cassidy at The New Yorker website zeroed in on Obama’s lack of specifics about the changes in NSA metadata collection and retention. If the government doesn’t store the data itself, as Obama announced, who will hold it, and how will accessing it work? So many details have yet to be worked out, and that working-out will require a lot of time and effort. “The main takeaway from Obama’s speech…was that the White House is seeking to toss this hot potato to Congress,” wrote Cassidy. “And since Congress is hopelessly divided, it is perfectly possible that nothing very meaningful will change.”
Cassidy’s colleague Ryan Lizza, on the other hand, seemed to take Obama’s promises of metadata-collection reform at face value, interpreting the speech as “a major policy change” and “incredible victory” for critics of the program. Fred Kaplan at Slate thought everyone should have had lower expectations to begin with, because “these reforms were always going to be about stiffening the oversight of key NSA programs—not greatly altering, much less scuttling, the programs themselves.” As for the “mixed bag” of oversight that he gathered from Obama’s speech, Kaplan writes in the end that it’s “much better than nothing.”
Incidentally, those watching the speech waiting for hints about the fate of the man without whom none of this would have been discussed were likely disappointed by what they heard. “Mr. Obama made only a brief, critical reference to Mr. Snowden, saying his actions had jeopardized the nation’s defense and framed a debate that has ‘often shed more heat than light,’” wrote Mark Landler and Charlie Savage in the Times. Joe Coscarelli at New York magazine wrote that the speech “slighted” Snowden. MoJo’s Drum argued, “Obama’s attempt to suggest that he would have done all this stuff even without Snowden’s disclosures strikes me as laughable.”
Meanwhile, the techies on Twitter kept the spotlight on the topic that Obama didn’t touch at all—the NSA’s work to undermine Internet encryption:
NSA sabotage of crypto standards was the thing most conspicuously absent for me.— matt blaze (@mattblaze) January 17, 2014
Obama didn't mention anything about NSA systematically undermining common encryption, one of the most disturbing Snowden revelations.— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) January 17, 2014
Notably absent from Obama surveillance speech: any discussion of NSA colluding with NIST and US tech companies to weaken cybersecurity.— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) January 17, 2014
The Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee and Siobhan Gorman, who mostly played it straight in their wrap-up, also commented on that absence from the President’s speech. Of all the threads that the Summer of Snowden unspooled, encryption is the one that has gotten the least amount of attention in public discussion, perhaps because it’s not the easiest one for the tech-unsavvy to grasp. (This explanation from ProPublica is a great place to go, to start to try.)
Finally, to help us zoom out a bit, from the details to the big picture, Dan Froomkin (formerly of Posts Washington and Huffington, and now of Omidyar’s First Look Media) has contributed this head-nodder:
Media will inevitably focus on what's new, but the real news is what is now "normal".— Dan Froomkin (@froomkin) January 17, 2014