Obama Inches Forward on NSA Oversight

In a much-anticipated speech at the Justice Department this morning, the president adopted a few high-profile reforms–as recommended last month by a review panel he appointed– of the NSA’s telecommunications surveillance programs, notably calling for third-party maintenance of “swept” data and a halt to surveillance of friendly foreign governments and their leaders. But many critics of the NSA will renew demands that the controversy be viewed as a government threat to crucial and absolute privacy rights, rather than a “balancing act” between privacy and national security concerns, which is how Obama continues to treat it. And others are already noting that even where the president has embraced reforms, he’s deferring to Congress to design and implement them.

One issue where Obama’s intentions will depend on the eye of the beholder involves the secret FISA Court that has the rarely-used power to curb NSA surveillance. Obama’s review panel recommended several FISA Court reforms, including greater transparency in its proceedings and a more broadly constituted authority to appoint judges. At this point, the president only embraced one reform, creation of a privacy advocate with responsibility to defend civil liberties interests in FISA cases.

In the end, Obama’s caution may turn out to be moot (though politically damaging) if the courts intervene to declare major elements of NSA surveillance unconstitutional. Perhaps more to the immediate point, his position has not made it terribly easy for Republicans–themselves deeply split on the subject–to exploit public unhappiness with massive phone, email and text message sweeping. But anyone hoping for the kind of major policy leap Obama accomplished on same-sex marriage, or at least a plain-spoken repudiation of Bush administration policies in this area, is bound to be deeply disappointed.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.