Obama's NSA speech reflects American apathy

  • 17 January 2014
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President Obama pauses during his speech on NSA surveillance reforms on January 17, 2014.
Mr Obama 'attempted to dodge some of the biggest decisions'

President Barack Obama delivered his speech on Friday describing reforms to the NSA and US intelligence-gathering policies, and initial reactions are all over the map. As the BBC's Mark Mardell observes, the president's proposal is thin on details - which has allowed commentators to project their hopes and fears onto the president's proposals.

From one point of view, Mr Obama's proposals didn't go nearly far enough.

"This is the government, in the person of this president, telling you what you have to give up in order to be safe," writes Esquire's Paul P Pierce.

"(As near as I can tell, the NSA is not being asked to stop doing much of anything, and the president's Bush-standard apocalyptics doesn't give me a lot of faith in whatever oversight he says he's put in place.) Perhaps the country is willing to live with the arrangement, but it is a lie to call it a balance."

National Journal's James Oliphant agrees:

What President Obama has announced will have little operational effect on the National Security Agency's collection of Americans' data. And, significantly, the administration has attempted to dodge some of the biggest decisions, passing the ball to Congress, which will likely do nothing if recent trends hold.

On the other side, the Weekly Standard's Gary Schmitt thinks that Mr Obama is damaging the NSA's intelligence-gathering ability for no reason.

"No one has found any evidence that NSA has broken the law, invaded constitutionally-protected privacy rights, or is about to," he writes. "But never mind, it's the very possibility that someday, somehow, NSA will jump the tracks that requires the president now to unduly complicate the use of what he admits has been an important counterterrorism tool."

But the real truth behind the Obama administration's proposed reforms may have come from Business Insider's Josh Barro, who tweeted that "nobody votes on this issue". For the most part, the US public just doesn't care - and Mr Obama appears happy to keep it that way.

True, there's a portion of the population, composed of civil libertarians and conservatives suspicious of government power, that vociferously objects to the government's intelligence-gathering activities.

In a poll the first week of January, 48% of Americans said the support the government's phone metadata surveillance program. While 47% opposed it, these are hardly the type of numbers that will encourage a massive policy shift.

In fact, much of the commentary surrounding the NSA surveillance debate has centred around why Americans are so apathetic about the government programs. Is it because of 9/11 and the fear of another terrorist attack? University of Southern California Law Professor Susan Estrich thinks so.

"Has the NSA overreached?" the former Democratic campaign manager writes in a recent column. "Almost certainly. Have these surveillance programs saved lives? So we are told. Between the risk of overreaching and the risk of terrorism, which is worse? Easy."

There's also the fact that liberals - the ideological faction most likely to protest these programs - have been reluctant to criticise a president from their own party.

"I would love to go back to 2007/8, show early Obama backers this speech, and then collate their reactions in a video," tweets the National Review's Charles CW Cook.

Some on the left may even be coming to enjoy supporting the surveillance policies, writes the Guardian's Ana Marie Cox:

Democrats, while somewhat hamstrung by their necessary embrace of the administration, are probably more bound by their newfound foreign policy muscularity; their success at being as bloodthirsty as any Republican when it comes to "enemies" seems to have intoxicated former critics of executive abuses - a form of philosophical 'roid rage - the most significant of these defectors being Obama himself.

And as for Republicans, she says they're faced with a conundrum, as well: "Though Obama critics can reliably add the NSA's overreach to their litany of complaints about the administration, it does not fit easily into the 'angry socialist Muslim' narrative that winds through the other scandals they use to gin up support."

The US public's reaction to the US surveillance program is in marked contrast to the European view, particularly in Germany, where opinion is decidedly negative. In a November 2013 poll, 70% of Germans objected to government collection of phone and internet data for national security purposes.

"Europeans still operate under the assumption that it is critical to uphold the rule of law," write Globalist editor Stephan Richter and German MEP Jan Philipp Albercht for the Guardian. "The US government is more than flexible with the rule of law by turning any notion of privacy into Swiss cheese. The dangerous implications this holds for the core ideas of democracy are obvious."

They continue:

American citizens themselves, to a stunningly large extent, have bought into the notion that the "war on terror" and "Islamic extremism" justify all means. Their acquiescence, if not active tolerance, is what allows Washington to operate above the law, from drones to routinely spying on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Spanish people, to name but a few of the targets.

If Americans are relatively unconcerned about the US government monitoring their own population, they're even less worried about what it does in other countries.

"I want tight controls on what the US government can do to Americans," writes Ace of Spades blogger DrewM. "Foreigners? That's WHY we have an intelligence community."

Mr Obama's speech appears to confirm this. While he said he has "made clear to the intelligence community that - unless there is a compelling national security purpose - we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies", that leaves a lot open to interpretation.

"It's still less than a categorical refusal to allow that kind of surveillance in the future," writes Ed Morrissey for Hot Air blog. "It's a diplomatic bone, tossed with the understanding that our allies should applaud but not expect us to change too much about what we do."

The best that has been said of Mr Obama's proposals is "it's a good first step". But for suspicious European allies, it's not much of a step at all.