It’s not unduly cynical to say that President Barack Obama hopes much of the fuss over revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive domestic surveillance program will have blown over by the time Congress returns in September.
The public’s attention span is short – not because Americans don’t care, but because they’re preoccupied with their daily lives – and Congress has a backlog of politically difficult work ahead of it.
On the question of NSA, Obama indicated at his press conference last week that he’s satisfied with the status quo. Indeed, he’s even built on the snooping legacy bequeathed to him by President George W. Bush.
Obama noted that there’s a certain tension between protecting our security and preserving our freedom and privacy – and that we “may want to rejigger slightly” that balance to make the people “comfortable.” This is hardly a full-throated call for significant reform.
He summed up his approach to the NSA flap with a baffling metaphor: “Let’s just put the whole elephant out there, and examine what’s working.”
Disconcerting visuals aside, the president unveiled a set of largely cosmetic initiatives, some of which could be mildly beneficial and some of which may serve only to buy time for the NSA flap to die down.
They’re detailed in the administration’s 22-page white paper, which explains why it believes the wholesale collection of domestic phone logs – who called whom and for how long – is legal. Meanwhile, the NSA put out a seven-page paper basically explaining the agency’s mission.
Obama announced the creation of a task force, including outside intelligence specialists and civil libertarians, to advise the government on balancing security and privacy. Congressional oversight committees with subpoena power complain about the difficulty of prying information out of the NSA. It seems unlikely a purely advisory commission will fare any better.
Depending on how it’s structured, one proposed reform could be significant: an adversarial lawyer to cross-examine and challenge government applications for wiretap warrants before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The proceedings now are held entirely in secret, with only government lawyers present.
Again, the effectiveness of this reform depends on the willingness of an agency that operates entirely in secret to go along with it. The obstacles facing defense attorneys in Guantanamo’s relatively more open tribunals are not promising omens.
Republicans, who once could be counted on to denounce big secret-prying by big government, are to Obama’s right on this one. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner warned against any reform that “will compromise the operational integrity of the program.”
Lastly in Obama’s favor is that the American people just don’t seem all that upset by the government’s domestic eavesdropping.