Monday, January 20, 2014

Reining In The Guard Dogs

As today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many Americans have the day off from their regular jobs, as part of a national day of service. For those people who took off from work early on Friday, to try and capitalize on the three day weekend, it's likely they missed President Obama's NSA reform speech on Friday. So as part of our service to you, our readers, today, we're recapping the President's address from Friday, where he proposed several reforms to the NSA.

To say both the speech and the major reforms the President proposed have had a mixed reception would be the understatement of the year - and we're saying that knowing there are still eleven-plus months of 2014 ahead of us.

Just as Dana Liebelson of Mother Jones and Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor predicted, neither the security hawks or the civil libertarians were happy with the President's proposed reforms. As Greg Sargent clearly outlined though, the reforms are a good first step - but the fundamental argument between privacy and security remains unresolved.

President Obama effectively said as much in his address, noting the conflict between security and privacy.

As all of our staff members are currently or have been pet owners at one time, we tend to think of the NSA and other U.S. security services a bit like guard dogs. As an owner of a guard dog, you want the animal occasionally to come off as the biggest, meanest animal in existence, in order to scare away potential trouble.

Of course, then the problem becomes the same one the U.S. has now - how do you effectively control a beast like that?

For anti-NSA activists like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and writer Glenn Greenwald, it's no surprise they hated the President's speech and thought his reforms don't go nearly far enough. For pro-NSA politicians, including some members of Congress, the reforms the President suggested go too far. Not surprisingly, lawmakers from both major parties who were unhappy with Obama's reforms had plenty of complaints, but virtually no realistic suggestions on how to do things better.

In short, the major changes the President suggested include a public advocate role before the FISA Court, one of the major reforms initially suggested by President Obama's own reform commission. Obama also noted that spying on other world leaders is something every nation - even our allies - does, yet said he would rein in some of the surveillance our U.S. agencies do overseas. He also proposed having Congress create new policy safeguards for our U.S. surveillance activities overseas.

Finally, the President also noted that while phone call metadata collection - where someone records the phone numbers and length of the call - will continue, the number of calls catalogued will be significantly fewer. Further, the President called for a third-party agency, that is neither the NSA or the phone companies, to keep and hold the metadata - another action that will require Congress to get off their lazy asses and help solve the problem.

For what it's worth, some lawmakers from both parties did praise the President over the weekend for tackling this no-win situation, even in the midst of all the growling from both the pro- and anti-NSA camps.

We still think Greg Sargent's take on the NSA reforms hits it right on the head: It's a good start to reforming our problematic "guard dogs." That said, even with all the new reforms, we aren't going to feel comfortable, knowing the NSA and others like it will continue to stick their noses in places they don't belong.