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).

150 Years Ago: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

150 Years Ago: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

150 years ago, on November 19, 1863, the United States of America were in the midst of a bloody civil war that would test whether the American project would endure.

During the summer of 1963, the slave states of the Confederacy had gained the upper hand, or so it seemed.

One of three known photos of Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863. Made from the original glass plate negative at the National Archives which had lain unidentified for fifty-five years until 1952 when Josephine Cobb recognized Lincoln in the image. To Lincoln's right is bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon. To his far left is Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania. The photograph is estimated to have been taken at about noontime, just after Lincoln arrived, before Edward Everett's arrival and about three hours before Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. 19 November 1863. Image by David Bachrach (1845-1921). This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lincolnatgettysburg.jpg
One of three known photos of Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863. Made from the original glass plate negative at the National Archives which had lain unidentified for fifty-five years until 1952 when Josephine Cobb recognized Lincoln in the image. To Lincoln’s right is bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon. To his far left is Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania. The photograph is estimated to have been taken at about noontime, just after Lincoln arrived, before Edward Everett’s arrival and about three hours before Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. 19 November 1863. Image by David Bachrach (1845-1921). This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lincolnatgettysburg.jpg

Abraham Lincoln’s brief speech, held in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where just a few months earlier, a bloody battle had left thousands dead and many more wounded, addressed the question of America’s future as a nation.

It begins with a reminder that

[f]our score and seven years ago [eighty-seven years ago, in 1776,] our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The ideal of liberty versus the historical reality

Historically, of course, there was a mismatch between the ideal of a new free nation and the reality for several segments of the population. In the beginning, liberty was something to be enjoyed by white, propertied men (“all men” meaning ‘not women’).

The expansion of white settlements across the continent entailed the genocide and marginalization of Native American peoples.

The existence of chattel slavery contradicted the national self-image of America as a bulwark of liberty, as was pointed out with cutting precision by abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, for instance in his brilliant 1852 speech “What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?,” held eleven years before Lincoln’s.

That said, the issue of slavery had become central to the continuing existence of American nation. And while Lincoln had not planned to abolish slavery altogether prior to the Civil War, but only to stop its expansion, as can be read in his 1861 inaugural address, abolition would come about as a consequence of the war.

Sacrifice for saving the ideal of American popular government

Lincoln does not directly talk about slavery in the Gettysburg Address. He instead emphasizes the sacrifices of soldiers for the cause of the nation. Still, he talks about a “new birth of freedom”:

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it [the improved cemetery on the battlefield] far above our poor power to add or detract. [. . .] It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth [emphasis mine].

Lincoln appeals to the Union army by encouraging them to protect the American form of popular government, or at least the ideal of what it could be.

One and a half years later, in April of 1865, Lincoln was assassinated.

In June of 1865, the Civil War ended. The estimate of the number of military casualties is about 750,000. Combined with civilian deaths, it goes up to one million.

In retrospect, the Gettysburg Address is generally seen as a turning point in the Civil War and remains one of the most famous political speeches in American history (and with a length of only about two minutes, a really short one, as well).

Update [2013/11/20] Conservative outrage over Obama not using “under God” in reading of the Gettysburg Address

President Obama recited the Gettysburg Address as one of many public figures after being approached by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. As The Raw Story reports, he used an early version that did not yet include the words “under God,” as in the version I quoted further up in this blog post. Because of this, the conservative outrage machine has thrown a temper tantrum.

This nontroversy is of course ridiculous. Firstly, because Obama just did an accurate reading of one specific version that just does not contain those words. Secondly, because in a secular state like the U.S., there are no religious tests as a requirement for public office.

Despite all this, the social reality in today’s American politics is extremely contradictory to this fact. To be elected to political office, one basically has to pay lip service to being religious, and the right kind of religion at that. Protestant Christianity is the default, Catholicism and Judaism is also kind of okay by now, but Muslims are few and suspect, in particular since 2001. But none are more suspect than those who lack the ‘proper’ public displays of religiosity, regardless of context.

As a European who thinks that the separation of church and state was the most brilliant idea of the American Founding Fathers (European history is full of theocracies and religious wars), I facepalm.

Read, hear, and see more:

[Audio] “For Its 150th, A Reading Of The Gettysburg Address.” – Historian Eric Foner and NPR staff read the Gettysburg Address. (NPR, 2013/11/19)

[Audio] “A Reading of the Gettysburg Address.” – Actor Sam Waterston reads the Gettysburg Address. (NPR, 2003/11/13)

The full text of the Gettysburg Address at American Rhetoric.

The Civil War: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.” (C-SPAN, 2013/11/16)

Filmmaker Burns celebrates Gettysburg Address.” (David Jackson, USA Today, 2013/11/18)

[Audio] “Putting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address In its Original Context.” (NPR, 2013/11/19) – Historian Eric Foner explains the Gettysburg Address in the larger context of the American Civil War.

The Words That Remade America.” (Garry Wills, The Atlantic, 1992/06) – A 1992 essay by Pulitzer- Prize-winning author Gary Wills on the language of the Gettysburg Address.

[Video] Gettysburg Address online exhibition at the Library of Congress. (myLOC, n.d.)

[Video] The Gettysburg Address Animated (Maria Popova, Open Culture, 2010/11/04)

The fake controversy about Obama not saying “under God”:

Conservatives flip out after Obama reads original Gettysburg Address without ‘under God’.” (David Edwards, The Raw Story, 2013/11/19)

Right-Wing Noise Machine Fabricates Gettysburg Address Omission To Attack Obama.” (Tyler Hansen, Media Matters for America, 2013/11/19)

[Video] “Obama ‘One Nation Under God’ Controversy.” (TYT, 2013/11/13)


New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll.” (Guy Gugliotta, New York, 2012/04/02)

Statistical Summary America’s Major Wars.” (United States War Center via archive.org)

Auf deutsch:

Schnelles Gedenken: Gettysburg-Rede.” (Ulrike Rückert, Deutschlandfunk, 19.11.2013)

Barack Obama’s 2013 State Of The Union Address

Barack Obama’s 2013 State Of The Union Address

He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution

This year, Barack Obama’s State Of The Union Address is also an overture to his second term in office as the 44th President of the United States. Topics addressed in his SOTU include the state of the economy, immigration reform, foreign policy, the use of drones, dealing with gun violence in America, and solutions to climate change. Find my reflection on Obama at the begining of his second term below, the SOTU and more links further below.

Speeches Project Images, Not Realities

Anyone who has observed Obama giving speeches, except perhaps at the beginning of the past televised debates with Mitt Romney, knows that he is a great performer. His speechwriters are incredibly skillful at creating powerful history-laden images and evoking emotions. This is how they work and what they are supposed to do.

But while ritualized political speeches such as the State Of The Union Address do count as symbols, we as observers and students of these texts should try not to let our senses be clouded by those masterful emotional appeals. This is difficult, because as human beings, we are hard-wired to respond emotionally.

Nonetheless, a rational look at the factual first-term record of the Obama administration is much more revealing in regards to its true character. Political speeches, at the end of the day, are rather a reflection of the image that a speaker wants to project of themself than an accurate representation of what they actually do.

Some Social Progress At Home, But No Departure From Neo-conservative Disregard For Civil Liberties

Nobody can seriously expect any politician to fulfill all campaign promises, but watching Obama the vocal liberal-minded critic of Bush’s ‘war on terror’ policies transform into an accomplice and protector of those responsible for the torture architecture, and later granting himself powers to execute even US citizens on a clandestine kill list via the NDAA is quite frightening.

You can read about the discrepancy between the image of 2008 candidate Barack Obama and the actions of President Barack Obama it in my earlier blog posts here and here, or at exhaustive length at Obama the Conservative, a website that chronicles (with sources) how except on some social issues (the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, advocacy for gay marriage), the current POTUS has embraced and in some cases (such as executions by drone) expanded questionable policies of the Bush/Cheney administration.

To be clear: I am not downplaying the threat posed by militant religious extremism in the world today, as no sane observer would. Neither am I denying the necessity of an ideological, sometimes even violent confrontation between liberal democracy as a system and militant theocrats, be they states or non-state actors. But in the pursuit of this objective, the advocates of liberty must not abandon their ideals. Collateral damage tends to create new enemies.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil“, Aphorism 146 (1886)

In my opinion, the neoconservative dictum of ‘taking off the gloves’—throwing out the rule of law and justifying activities like mass surveillance, kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial killings—in the name of protecting democracy is not only a farce but destructive to democracy.

Any authoritarian regime in the history of the world has justified similar actions by claiming that it acted for the benefit of its own people. Brought to its logical conclusion, the maintenance of the illusion of total security ultimately brings with it the reality of total surveillance.

The realization of the many continuities in the ‘War on Terror’ between the current and the previous administration is troublesome, especially considering that in 2008, Barack Obama ran as a civil liberties candidate who criticized the Bush administration for its conduct.

A Brand Image Is Not The Actual Product

Despite perhaps the greatest political campaign in recent times (in 2008), the ‘product’ Obama has proven not to be what its packaging promised. And I say this as someone who was, maybe somewhat naively, quite enthusiastic about the election result at the time. Of course, a government is and should be a complex construct with more agents than a head of state influencing the general direction. But to think that Obama had no hand at all in steering the course throughout the past four years would be a misjudgment as well.

Watch Obama’s 2013 State Of The Union Address here:

President Barack Obama State of the Union 2013 speech (full text, video).” (Politico)

The 2013 SOTU, from the New York Times:

Speeches by Politicians opposing Obama:

Marco Rubio as the anti-Mitt Romney.” (Jonathan Martin, Politico, 2013/02/13)

Marco Rubio response fact check.” (Darren Samuelsohn and Joanne Kenen, Politico, 2013/02/13)

Rubio, A New Face, Delivers A Familiar Message In Response To Obama.” (Liz Halloran, NPR, 2013/02/12)

Tea party State of the Union 2013 rebuttal: Rand Paul response (full text).” (Politico)


FactChecking Obama’s SOTU.” (FactCheck, 2013/02/13)

Fact-checking the State of the Union address.” (PolitiFact, 2013/02/12)

Read more:

State of the Union analysis: Aggressive speech, even more aggressive message.” (Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico, 2013/02/13)

How To Watch President Obama’s 2013 State Of The Union Address Online Tonight.” (John Paul Titlow, ReadWrite, 2013/02/12)

Obama’s Agenda: Incremental Progress, not Sweeping Initiatives.” (Ron Fournier, The Atlantic, 2013/02/12)

Obama Pledges Push to Lift Economy for Middle Class.” (Mark Landler, New York Times, 2013/02/12)

Obama To Congress: With Or Without You.” (Alan Greenblatt, NPR, 2012/02/12)

Obama to Push Split Congress to Act on Guns and Economy.” (Michael D. Shear, New York Times, 2013/02/12)

State Of the Union Address 2013 5 Topics Obama Will Discuss.” (Adam Jutha, PolicyMic, 2013/02/12)


State of the Union Portal (New York Times) – Many resources on the topic, including useful links to archives of past SOTU speeches.

Auf Deutsch/In German:

Rede zur Lage der Nation: Obama lässt sich nichts mehr bieten.” (Sebastian Fischer, Spiegel Online, 13.02.2013)