President Barack Obama’s new policy on high-tech surveillance, announced in a speech at the Justice Department last week, was a political compromise designed more to mollify public outrage over the government’s voracious data collection than to force any radical change.
Obama defended the need for the National Security Agency to cast a wide net for electronic surveillance — and we think that given the threat from terror networks, the president is right to be concerned. Obama said he would require that agencies get court approval before they access calling records except in the case of emergencies. Obama also insisted that the NSA had not abused its power, a questionable claim at best eight months after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked massive amounts of internal information about the agency.
Obama ordered “a transition that will end” the bulk collection of phone metadata, but it was unclear how that would work, and, in any case, the data will continue to exist though no longer be held by the government. A better approach: Reduce the amount of data the government collects and require the NSA to ask only for the data it actually needs. He gave the Justice Department and intelligence agencies until late March to propose a new storage option. The president also called on Congress to appoint a panel of independent advocates to argue before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; right now, the court only hears the government’s side. That would be an improvement, although the president could have named his own panel instead of waiting for Congress to get around to the task.
The president’s proposals would help restore some measure of credibility to the NSA, but their impact may be limited, and it’s already clear that civil liberties advocates are less than impressed.
We found it disappointing that Obama was silent on one of the central questions here: Do the NSA’s techniques really make us safer? His own review panel was skeptical, and a report by the New America Foundation found that the program “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”
The United States needs this capability, but it also must balance that need with this nation’s historic legacy of openness and freedom. Our view is that Obama has made a start but still hasn’t found the right balance.
— From the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel