“The horror of September 11th brought all these issues [America left without a competing superpower, emerging threats from terrorist groups, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, globalization and the internet, erasure of borders] to the fore. Across the political spectrum, Americans recognized that we had to adapt to a world in which a bomb could be built in a basement, and our electric grid could be shut down by operators an ocean away. We were shaken by the signs we had missed leading up to the attacks — how the hijackers had made phone calls to known extremists and traveled to suspicious places. So we demanded that our intelligence community improve its capabilities, and that law enforcement change practices to focus more on preventing attacks before they happen than prosecuting terrorists after an attack.” (Emphasis added.)
This is of course complete nonsense. Obama claims that “taken together, these efforts [the transformation of America’s intelligence community] have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives — not just here in the United States, but around the globe.” But as a matter of fact, even mass spying on their own citizens, let alone “pinpoint[ing] an al Qaeda cell in Yemen or an email between two terrorists in the Sahel [sic]”, have not prevented any domestic terrorist attack in recent years and Obama’s drone war, a global assassination campaign, has evidently produced far more enemy “combatants” in countries like Pakistan or Yemen than killed targets. NSA’s mass surveillance is, of course, just a direct consequence of endless war, something which has in fact begun after the end of the Cold War and which turned, in the absence of true antagonists, into a war against certain individuals who hate the U.S. for one reason or the other. The world had expected in 2009 that the young and charismatic, now disenchanted, constitutional law professor in the White House would eventually end George W. Bush’s “war on terror”, not to perpetuate it, refine it, extend it to whistle-blowers and a free press.
There is a lot of admitted skepticism in Obama’s speech (“I have often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own government”), be it to pretend his own and his citizens’ reservation towards mass surveillance to get them finally aboard, be it to signal that this is essentially not his own decision to just make some cosmetic reform of the NSA. Obama is smart enough to assume both propaganda and denial of responsibility, a hostage of uncontrollable Alexander, Clapper, Hayden and the likes. That spying is done by each country, that members of the intelligence community are our family and neighbors and “[c]orporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes” cannot justify NSA mass suveillance.
Now, what’s the meat of promised reforms? First, “a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities both at home and abroad.” Second, greater transparency to the NSA’s surveillance activities including declassifying oinions and court rulings of the secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC or FISA), in order to fortify safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. citizens. Third, promised “s ability to retain, search, and use in
criminal cases communications between Americans and foreign citizens” currently collected “incidentally” under Section 702 of the FISA act. Forth,
“[A]mend how we use national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy. We will also enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government.”
And to curb the metadata collection under section 215 of the FISA act. Well, not really.
“Why is this [collecting bulk metadata] necessary? The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11. One of the 9/11 hijackers — Khalid al-Mihdhar — made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but it could not see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. And this capability could also prove valuable in a crisis. For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to quickly review phone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort.”
Juan Cole points today to the fact that U.S. intelligence knwe that al-Mihdar was in the United States. The reason why al-Midhar was not detained was that “[t]he various intelligence agencies were each looking to make their own bust and refused to properly share information with one another.” (Cole’s emphasis.) Anyway, Obama promises to order “a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata.” Admittedly, not an easy task.
“Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of the current three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.
Next […], I have instructed the intelligence community and the Attorney General to use this transition period to develop options for a new approach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that the Section 215 program was designed to address without the government holding this metadata itself. They will report back to me with options for alternative approaches before the program comes up for reauthorization on March 28th. And during this period, I will consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views, and then seek congressional authorization for the new program as needed.” (My emphasis.)
Way too vague to rebuild lost confidence by the American citizens (is it?) and people abroad (for sure). It doesn’t come as a surprise when media in Germany, for instance, pointed to Obama’s promise not to tap phone calls of the heads of friendly governments anymore, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Is that the essence of Obama’s promised reforms?
“Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments — as opposed to ordinary citizens — around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective. But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners. And the changes I’ve ordered do just that.”
Merkel, whose mobile phone had been targeted by NSA, will certainly recall Obama’s claims when having visited the Brandenburg Gate in June last year, a couple of weeks after Edward Snowden’s leaks began to emerge in public. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
And finally, ad nauseam, Obama’s patriotic claims of Americans being exceptional, American values (long betrayed), Americans being natural leaders. Orwellian.
18 January 2014 @ 9:59 am.
Last modified January 18, 2014.