President Obama’s surveillance speech Friday morning, presumably aiming to reassure the American and global publics that the US government respects their privacy, was primarily an exercise in pretty rhetoric.
To be clear, he did announce the start of various revamps and reorganizations aimed, he said, at minimizing the mass collection and storage of digital communications. These include strengthening the executive branch’s authority over intelligence, considering Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decisions annually for possible declassification, finding a way to remove mass metadata from government storage while keeping its ability to search it, and scaling back from allowing phone sweeps of contacts three connections away from a suspect to two.
But these concessions to public outcry still reveal a man determined to retain control of the narrative. Strengthening executive-branch control of intelligence may help prevent misuse of data, but it could also increase secrecy by locking down a leak-free chain of command under a chief executive who has gone after more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined, in addition to attempting to muzzle the journalists reporting the leaked information.
The latest whistleblower in the government crosshairs is Edward Snowden, currently evading the charges via asylum in Russia. Obama claimed that Snowden’s “unauthorized disclosures” came just before some plans he had to start “a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty,” but his dismissal of the undeniably robust reporting and discussion spurred by Snowden—they “shed more heat than light,” Obama said—shows a continuing aversion to any tale that he isn’t telling.
And that increased potential for FISC document declassification, following the “declassifi[cation of] over 40 opinions and orders”? Those opinions and orders often contain significant redactions, and their logic relies on FISC decisions that remain classified, creating gaps sizable enough that more than 25 news organizations are involved in some sort of FOIA fight for more disclosure.
While the upshot of Obama’s speech may make it marginally harder to obtain authorization to comb through the bulk US data, that data will still be collected and stored, by someone, be it telecom companies or an as-yet-unnamed third party. This leaves the potential for surveillance overreach unchanged—along with the administration’s aversion to keeping the public abreast of that fact.