Obama’s NSA Reform Speech: Don’t Believe The Hype

Obama’s great NSA reform speech of 2014: Don’t Believe The Hype

Last Friday (January 17, 2014), Barack Obama gave a speech that was designed to appear as if he actually took into consideration the global outrage over the NSA’s mass surveillance practices.

Here is the full speech, from the Wall Street Journal’s YouTube channel:

A transcript from the Washington Post can be found here.

From my point of view, as a strong advocate for civil liberties, it was not at all satisfactory.

What did Obama actually say?

  1. He used to be skeptical of US surveillance programs, but now he generally he sees nothing wrong with them. The logic of the national security state prevails.
  2. He wants more control of the gathered information—inside the US. No blanket surveillance but warrants by a judge of the FISA court.
  3. Close allied leaders (such as Angela Merkel) are not to be spied on, except for “compelling national security purpose[s]”—whatever that means. But nonetheless the US will continue to spy on even allied governments.
  4. We, the U.S. government, are not going after you everyday foreigners, but we will still vacuum up all your data, just in case. – Note how Obama does not say anything about the exposed NSA programs in his speech.
  5. The FiSA court gets one voice for civil liberties.
  6. IT companies who are forced to hand over customer data to US intelligence will get temporary gag orders through National Security Letters instead of indefinite gag orders.
  7. The NSA will continue to weaken cryptographic standards on the Internet – Obama did not say a word about this important reform point proposed by a panel of experts.

There are many issues with Obama’s views on American surveillance, even if we assume that this speech actually reflects his genuine views.

First, Obama seems to have bought into the idea that the American surveillance bureaucracy is different from any other comparable institution in the history of the world. He sounds as if he believes that by the virtue of character of the people working for it, the NSA is free from all the deformities that have been known to exist in other times and places in similar settings.

He wants us to believe that American spooks are so exceptional that they can defy human nature. But the point of the revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance is not that its employees are evil as individuals. The mere fact that the NSA as an institution has the structural potential for “turnkey totalitarianism,” as one commenter put it, is the alarming fact.

Second, the FISA court has been known to be a rubber stamp court. So far, the U.S. government has almost never been denied a request there.

Third, the term “national security” is so vague that almost anything can be connected to it and hence spying can be justified almost all of the time.

 Read more:

Global Privacy Leaders React to Obama’s NSA Reform Proposals.” (Katitza Rodriguez, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2014/01/17)

Obama bans spying on leaders of U.S. allies, scales back NSA program.” (Steve Holland, Mark Hosenball and Jeff Mason, Reuters, 2014/01/17)

auf deutsch:

Sicherheitsexperte: “Jeder Überwachungsapparat kann leicht missbraucht werden”. (, ZEIT ONLINE, 15.01.2014) – Ein Interview mit dem Google-Softwareingenieur Morgan Marquis-Boire über das Missbrauchspotenzial staatlicher Überwachungsapparate.

Obamas NSA-Vorschläge – Viele Worte, ein wenig Reform.” (Johannes Kuhn, Süddeutsche, 17.01.2014)

ZDF-Interview zur NSA: Wie Obama die Maßstäbe verschiebt.” (Johannes Kuhn, Süddeutsche, 19.01.2014).

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