This past Friday, President Obama finally directly addressed an issue that has been raging since the Edward Snowden leaks back in June; the NSA surveillance scandal (a full transcript of the speech can be found here, courtesy of The New York Times). Countless politicians and public figures have addressed the issue in the media, but this was one of the first times the President discussed it openly and at length with the press. As one could imagine, reactions to the speech ranged from “usefully balanced” to “skeptical.” Although the topic needed to be addressed by President Obama, the public should not expect much to change in the immediate aftermath of this speech.
The President worked both sides of the argument, noting first that the NSA and other intelligence agencies have “an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported and failure can be catastrophic.” This is obviously true, as the NSA has been forced to deal with unprecedented problems and an extremely evasive enemy since 9/11, but many still believe that it is not a valid excuse for the alleged violations of civil liberties. Still, President Obama insisted that the NSA has carried out its surveillance programs “without any known abuse of power.”
The President also acknowledged the impending reforms to the NSA’s intelligence gathering programs, urging the public to be patient as the specifics are hammered out. “The challenge is getting the details right,” he stated, “and that’s not simple.” Still, plenty of news outlets have already hammered President Obama for lack of specificity although it seems clear that there is nothing to be specific about at the moment.
President Obama did, however, hint at changing data collection responsibilities to private entities rather than the government. This would theoretically ease some of the tension since private corporations like Verizon and AT&T obviously already have that data on hand, but the government would presumably have ready access to it.
By and large, President Obama did not provide the public with any new information. Many of the reforms he discussed have been on the negotiating table for quite some time and as much as they may want it, nobody should truly expect the reforms to happen any time soon. And as much as the public, media, and politicians have already criticized the speech, it is not as if the President has any real control over the situation yet. This should be seen only as a necessary step taken by the Obama administration to calm the public and control the damage. It is up to Congress to present him with an acceptable plan that will address the issues. Until that happens, analyzing President Obama’s stance on the issue is largely moot.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research