My concern with Obama’s NSA surveillance reforms

obama-flagIn case you haven’t heard, President Obama laid out new reforms on surveillance at the NSA today (more helpful coverage HERE and HERE). These were a direct response to the concerns raised by the leaks of Edward Snowden (can we please we start acknowledging that he has helped us more than hurt us now?).

The reforms are already getting mixed responses among privacy advocates, some praising it as a “major milestone” while other still think it to simply be “reconfigured unconstitutional program”. I am inclined to be mostly happy about these reforms (and this issue has been a big issue for me), but I just have a couple of concerns apart from the reforms themselves I wanted to throw out there. If I’m wrong on any of this, please let me know.

I know the NSA is a federal agency and therefore under the purview and regulation of the President, but shouldn’t Obama be proposing legislative restrictions, and not just regulatory ones? Yes, much of the implementation of these reforms will now be done by Congress, but not the limits themselves.

It seems to me that there are two problems with this. First, it doesn’t acknowledge that anything was necessarily “wrong” in the first place. It still assumes that all of this was perfectly fine, and just because two short generations of Congressional “leaders” on a few select panels and committees authorized bits and pieces of these programs, the whole thing was therefore fully lawful and Constitutional (even though these programs’ limits have never been tested before the Supreme Court.

To issue mere regulations means that Obama believes this was a problem of form, not substance. But honestly, I never expected him to admit that there were any problems, if for no other reason because Republicans would have excoriated our “Apologizer-in-Chief” for “weakening us” or some other B.S. like that.

My biggest issue is that if these reforms are simply Presidential regulations, and not codifications in law, then the limits of our privacy rest not in our Constitution and laws, but in whatever President happens to be office. Correct me if I’m wrong, but President Obama standing up today and saying “okay, okay, I’ll tweak some things” is still him saying that he himself as President is the one who decides these things and not our legal documents.

In short, I really think we would have ended up more protected if these issues went unresolved and the Supreme Court enforced restrictions. By preempting that, Obama is, I think, simply reinforcing the real dysfunction here.

I’ll be honest: my primary problem with all the NSA stuff hasn’t necessarily been the surveillance methods themselves–it was the secrecy and the power that the Executive branch reserved for itself (along with Congress’ abdication of responsibility). If Americans knew our phone metadata was being scooped up and analyzed, and they by-and-large didn’t seem to have a problem with it, it wouldn’t bother me nearly as much as us not knowing about it in the first place. As long as we knew what was going on.

So while I may like these reforms, I don’t like that Obama felt like it was his right to put them forward. Because by doing this, he guarantees an uncertain future for us as new Presidents come and go. Who’s to say the next person in office won’t just remove the reforms he put in place? If it’s all at the capricious whims of whoever’s in office at any given time, what hope do we have for a sturdy, consistent democracy where the citizenry has a clear view of the governance under which they live and try to prosper?

I hope that’s our future and our legacy, but at this point, my confidence is trembling.


One thought on “My concern with Obama’s NSA surveillance reforms

  1. I need to learn more about what Obama is proposing, but I agree with your general point. If we aren’t truly checking the power, we aren’t really accomplishing what we need to. All it takes is someone else to come along and re-exercise the power still in place. That’s been one of the fundamental concerns all along – not so much whether the power is being abused today, but how this power could be abused in secret in the future. If we aren’t fixing that issue, we aren’t fixing the fundamental problem.


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