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Greenwald writes: "Now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. 'Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress,' he gushed with an impressively straight face. ... But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of plainly cosmetic 'reforms.'"

Glenn Greenwald. (photo: AP)
Glenn Greenwald. (photo: AP)

Obama's NSA 'Reforms' Inadequate, Cosmetic Gestures

By Glenn Greenwald, Guardian UK

18 January 14


Obama is draping the banner of change over the NSA status quo. Bulk surveillance that caused such outrage will remain in place

n response to political scandal and public outrage, official Washington repeatedly uses the same well-worn tactic. It is the one that has been hauled out over decades in response to many of America's most significant political scandals. Predictably, it is the same one that shaped President Obama's much-heralded Friday speech to announce his proposals for "reforming" the National Security Agency in the wake of seven months of intense worldwide controversy.

The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to vali18 January 14 and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are "serious questions that have been raised". They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic "reforms" so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.

This scam has been so frequently used that it is now easily recognizable. In the mid-1970s, the Senate uncovered surveillance abuses that had been ongoing for decades, generating widespread public fury. In response, the US Congress enacted a new law (Fisa) which featured two primary "safeguards": a requirement of judicial review for any domestic surveillance, and newly created committees to ensure legal compliance by the intelligence community.

But the new court was designed to ensure that all of the government's requests were approved: it met in secret, only the government's lawyers could attend, it was staffed with the most pro-government judges, and it was even housed in the executive branch. As planned, the court over the next 30 years virtually never said no to the government.

Identically, the most devoted and slavish loyalists of the National Security State were repeatedly installed as the committee's heads, currently in the form of NSA cheerleaders Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the Senate and Republican Mike Rogers in the House. As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza put it in a December 2013 article on the joke of Congressional oversight, the committees "more often treat … senior intelligence officials like matinee idols".

As a result, the committees, ostensibly intended to serve an overseer function, have far more often acted as the NSA's in-house PR firm. The heralded mid-1970s reforms did more to make Americans believe there was reform than actually providing any, thus shielding it from real reforms.

The same thing happened after the New York Times, in 2005, revealed that the NSA under Bush had been eavesdropping on Americans for years without the warrants required by criminal law. The US political class loudly claimed that they would resolve the problems that led to that scandal. Instead, they did the opposite: in 2008, a bipartisan Congress, with the support of then-Senator Barack Obama, enacted targeta new Fisa law that legalized the bulk of the once-illegal Bush program, including allowing warrantless eavesdropping on hundreds of millions of foreign nationals and large numbers of Americans as well.

This was also the same tactic used in the wake of the 2008 financial crises. Politicians dutifully read from the script that blamed unregulated Wall Street excesses and angrily vowed to rein them in. They then enacted legislation that left the bankers almost entirely unscathed, and which made the "too-big-to-fail" problem that spawned the crises worse than ever.

And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. "Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress," he gushed with an impressively straight face. "One thing I'm certain of, this debate will make us stronger," he pronounced, while still seeking to imprison for decades the whistleblower who enabled that debate. The bottom line, he said, is this: "I believe we need a new approach."

But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of plainly cosmetic "reforms". By design, those proposals will do little more than maintain rigidly in place the very bulk surveillance systems that have sparked such controversy and anger.

To be sure, there were several proposals from Obama that are positive steps. A public advocate in the Fisa court, a loosening of "gag orders" for national security letters, removing metadata control from the NSA, stricter standards for accessing metadata, and narrower authorizations for spying on friendly foreign leaders (but not, of course, their populations) can all have some marginal benefits. But even there, Obama's speech was so bereft of specifics – what will the new standards bewho will now control Americans' metadata– that they are more like slogans than serious proposals.

Ultimately, the radical essence of the NSA – a system of suspicion-less spying aimed at hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world – will fully endure even if all of Obama's proposals are adopted. That's because Obama never hid the real purpose of this process. It is, he and his officials repeatedly acknowledged, "to restore public confidence" in the NSA. In other words, the goal isn't to truly reform the agency; it is deceive people into believing it has been so that they no longer fear it or are angry about it.

As the ACLU's executive director Anthony Romero said after the speech:

The president should end – not mend – the government's collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans' data. When the government collects and stores every American's phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an 'unreasonable search' that violates the constitution.

That, in general, has long been Obama's primary role in our political system and his premiere, defining value to the permanent power factions that run Washington. He prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in meaningful ways. He's not an agent of change but the soothing branding packaging for it.

As is always the case, those who want genuine changes should not look to politicians, and certainly not to Barack Obama, to wait for it to be gifted. Obama was forced to give this speech by rising public pressure, increasingly scared US tech giants, and surprisingly strong resistance from the international community to the out-of-control American surveillance state.

Today's speech should be seen as the first step, not the last, on the road to restoring privacy. The causes that drove Obama to give this speech need to be, and will be, stoked and nurtured further until it becomes clear to official Washington that, this time around, cosmetic gestures are plainly inadequate. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+31 # davidh7426 2014-01-18 10:28
Obama's going for the old 'pig in a dress' gambit, and hoping that people won't look close enough to smell the bacon.
+19 # indian weaver 2014-01-18 11:36
you must mean "smell the pig shit"?
+8 # davidh7426 2014-01-18 11:59
Yes... That too.
+7 # Holy Cow 2014-01-19 04:30
(S)ham us with caca, most certainly, indian weaver. That about says it for this pres., Oh Bomb Ah, the continuation and upping of Bushwhacker 'W'.

What a dreadful mess to be passing onto our kids and future generations. Time to revolt/implode.
+32 # reiverpacific 2014-01-18 10:34
Here is one issue on which Progressives and Libertarians can surely agree and form a coalition to oppose the National Spy Agency -let's call it for what it really is!
I note that there are few to no screams of opposition from the Re-Tea thug looney Right, especially as the rapidly declining in credibility Tea Buggers should be all over this bein' as how they purport to support -or shout loudly about- "Freedom" (for a few).
If Obama, Feinstein-fink and the rest of the palliative-feel -good cheerleaders think that that this is goin' to "restore public confidence" in Spy-vs-Spy, they must be living in a parallel Universe.
+38 # tedrey 2014-01-18 11:08
The only things we can trust the NSA to do are to perform illegal and unconstitutiona l actions and then lie about it. The NSA must be dismantled, and if a successor is found needful, it should be put under control of an administration of integrity, which it is now obvious can neither be Democratic nor Republican.
+28 # fredboy 2014-01-18 11:26
Did anyone really expect anything substantial coming from this White House?
A lifelong Dem, I switched to "no party" (true independent) a week ago. Can no longer tell the major parties, or White House administrations , apart.
+36 # John Escher 2014-01-18 11:33
"Matinee idols" is right, and that term doesn't just apply to the way congressional leaders view intelligence officials. It extends to President Obama himself and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates out flakking his book. The way these two men have characterized Edward Snowden reveals-- absolutely-- their thoughtless and lightweight souls.

Even beyond seeing Snowden as somebody who should be prosecuted rather than pardoned for his leaks, Obama says the discussion engendered by Snowden has provided "more heat than light." An interesting judgment. Was the president giving us a hint as to how we should take his own speech before he even finished delivering it?

And Sec'y Gates, having decided that what Daniel Ellsberg did was okay, called Snowden "a traitor." No, Gates and Obama are traitors to Thomas Jefferson's ideal of good journalism and openness and free American speech.
+22 # Vincent L. Guarisco 2014-01-18 12:15
Just like the CIA, the NSA needs to disbanded. This unsavory spy apparatus will always operate above constitutional law.

Especially so with the support of politicos, judges and those perched at the top of the food chain in the executive branch.

Get real, Privacy and freedom go hand in hand.

So, unless you have both, you have neither.
+24 # corduroyz 2014-01-18 12:24
Has anyone else noticed Obama's morbid fear of whistle blowers? Here is a president who professes his fealty toward human dignity and freedom, then proceeds to place a hammerlock on anyone who points to failures or inconsistencies in his administration in that realm or even, for that matter, toward any policy suggestions that would result in greater personal freedoms. Some constitutional law professor, that.
+18 # Archie1954 2014-01-18 12:26
The NSA is out of control just as the CIA is and that is a fault of the executive and legislative branches of government with some help from the judicial branch. The US government has failed the American people badly, very badly!
+16 # Vardoz 2014-01-18 12:58
This is not just the matter of the NSA spying on all of us. It is a matter of who is in control, as Greenwald pointed out last night on Bill Maher. Now between the Patriot Act that has abolished our civil liberties and now the possibility of a multitudes of corporations getting total immunity and total power with the TPP, our informations can be used for a mulititude of abuses since the only thing corporations care about are their protfits at any cost to everything. And Obama wants to fast track the TPP too. He has turned out to be a real wolf in sheeps clothes. We voted for him but he has turned his back on the WE THE PEOPLE thing. There is a reason why we have the biggest prison system on the planet with a vast number of people of color being held for minor drug offensives and other misdeanors. This is just part of the entire abuse of the majority package.
-17 # Caliban 2014-01-18 14:14
I suggest that anyone who wants to comment on President Obama's NSA speech and proposals should take the trouble to find (any search engine can do this) and study the speech itself and not rely just on Mr. Greenwald's description of it.

Mr. Greenwald is entitled to his point of view and has had many opportunities to present it in RSN. But nobody should imagine that it is the only one worth considering; nor should they imagine that Mr. Greenwald has anything remotely akin to the President's responsibility to protect the USA's national interests and its security.

Finally, we need to remember that the President is not a dictator. He can formulate policy directions and try to lead the thousands of others in Congress, the Military, the Courts, and the relevant government agencies to modify the way things are done by the government, but he cannot simply say :"Do thus and so" and have it done.

But I end by repeating my earlier suggestion; read the full text of the President's speech and get a fuller sense of where the President and those he has asked to work on reforms will be coming from.
+13 # engelbach 2014-01-18 17:33
It's strange that you would assume that those of us who agree with Greenwald have not read Obama's speech.

Your post refutes nothing Greenwald has said about the speech. Nor can you, because his assessment is correct.

Neither "Obama is not a dictator" and its opposite, "Obama is a dictator," has any meaning. We've heard both of these coming from various factions. Ultimately, we judge Obama on his words and deeds, not on whether he is defeated by Congress.

In this case, his words are obviously intended as Greenwald maintains, and his actions will be to make milque-toast requests that will do nothing to lessen the NSA's violations of our Fourth Amendment rights.

The president's first responsibility, to which he swore an oath, is to protect and defend the Constitution. Greenwald, and all the rest of us, also have that responsibility. And we've been doing it much better than Obama.
-2 # Caliban 2014-01-18 19:03
I made no assumptions about who did or didn't read the original text; nor do I completely disagree with Greenwald's summary. I just suggested reading the speech independently.

What reading the speech does is show the complexity of dealing with government institutions from a Presidential perspective. It also suggests many of the reasons for having intelligence gathering agencies with strong technical capabilities in an age when everybody else has them as well--and uses them often against the US government, its citizens, and its businesses.

Reading the full speech may also remind some people that the President has a big, complex job which requires him to work in concert with Congress and many others--which is all I meant about him not being a dictator. You apparently don't care whether the President can get reforms actually passed by Congress--only whether he will give you the lame but idealistic-soun ding generalities you seem to enjoy producing yourself.

I, however, want to see actual productivity on this matter, and this will inevitably require compromises, as with everything else President Obama must try to achieve. Reading the text of the speech will help citizens about how complex achieving success in this matter will be. But reading only Greenwald's highly slanted description of the President and his proposals will do just the opposite.

So, I say again: if you haven't read the text, please do so soon.
+8 # dbrize 2014-01-19 10:44
Let us agree that Greenwald has definite opinions on NSA "reforms" as announced by Obama. He has "slanted" his opinions no less than you, I, engelbach or, for that matter, Obama, in making his case.

I have read Obama's speech and find it to be a mishmash of cosmetic "improvements", a few mild mea culpas along with several open ended "I feel your pain...but" disclosures.

Now it is your right to read and interpret the text anyway you wish but it does not follow that those who disagree have not read the text.

If your point is that Obama has a tough job, well, he asked for it.

Engelbach is exactly right, his first responsibility, sworn by oath, is to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution. Everything else flows from that oath.

If he wishes to suspend the fourth amendment he is in violation of his oath.

None of this should come as a big surprise.

The Presidents belief that he possesses the authority to order the assassination of American citizens without due process is all one needs to know about the "constitutional scholar"s devotion to the old document.
0 # Caliban 2014-01-20 01:31
The meanings of Constitution (including the 4th Amendment) are always up for interpretation in regard to specific legal cases. In any case, I have seen NO instance where the President has expressed "a wish" to suspend the fourth amendment. If you have, I'd love to see your citation. In any case, until the Supreme Court rules on any Constitutional issues on any matter, all any of us have are personal opinions. So, I suggest we keep that in mind until the high court speaks.

Nor have I heard the President say he has the authority to order the assassination of law abiding American citizens without due process. Of course, in the process of fighting armed enemies of the law and/or the country (such as school shooters, home invaders, and domestic or foreign terrorists), it would appear that any of us has Constitutional grounds to use deadly force to protect the country, its citizens, and ourselves from active threats. However, if the President--or any of us--were tried and convicted of violating existing law in such matters, an appropriate and legal sentence should follow.
+2 # dbrize 2014-01-20 10:19
Ha! Caliban you are a clever one I'll give you that.

I'll hold in abeyance your problem with my use of the word "wish". As a former President said referencing language usage, " depends on the meaning of what the word".

Your recognition that the President has not stated the authority to assassinate "law abiding" citizens is precious. Let us join in thanking him from the bottom of our hearts. However, I'm reminded of another comment from a former President, "trust...but verify".

As to the use of force to defend oneself against an immediate attack from " shooters, home invaders, and domestic or foreign terrorists...", of course we do.

Does this give one the right to shoot and kill a suspicious looking person hanging around our house?

And, what has this to do with targeted, pre-planned assassination of an American citizen without due process?

The concept of a "war" against terrorism is a deliberately concocted misnomer to justify PNAC inspired dreams of a "new world order".

Terrorists are criminals, cartels of violence. They can be stopped by excellent police work, domestic and international, intelligence sharing and the occasional special ops action.

We have had global manhunts for criminals and criminal gangs for years, decades, without assassination by drone. We catch them, try them and sentence them. That is the American way, the Constitutional way.

In my opinion of course.
+7 # RicKelis 2014-01-18 15:23
..and the beat goes on.. I, for one, am really bored with the Obama Piñata game.
+6 # Beckmesser 2014-01-18 16:43
If Mr. Obama really believes that "the debate (about the role of NSA) will make us stronger" and then ignores what brought the debate about, he is guilty of pure, unadulterated hypocrisy. Not a word about Edward Snowden, the whistleblower. What a paradox: the man who precipitated this noble soul searching is a traitor in Obama's eyes. Sorry, Mr. Constitutional Lawyer, you can't have it both ways.
+7 # dbrize 2014-01-18 18:17
While I agree with your sentiments, can you name the last President not guilty of "pure unadulterated hypocrisy"?

If the Constitution meant anything we would have an impeachment every six years or so. Might make us a better nation when you think about it.

Our problems are deeply systemic, the names change and it really doesn't matter whether they enter the Imperial City from the right or left, the Constitution remains comatose, a penumbra administered to by the power structure.

On life support. To remain there as long as it suits their purposes.
-1 # grandma lynn 2014-01-19 16:30
Wait, he did name Edward Snowden, but, as NPR commentary put it, "unfavorably." I sent Obama a postcard critical of not giving whistle blower Snowden the credit he deserves for starting the "needed" conversation. Obama is just a total disappointment.
0 # Caliban 2014-01-20 01:53
The President did, in fact, mention Snowden--not at length, but not exactly "unfavorably" as Grandma states. Here is the one mention I have found in the text of the Obama speech: "Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations".
0 # ishmael 2014-01-18 20:23
A good deal of this debate is about money, which keeps it going.
-2 # geraldom 2014-01-19 00:14
On Friday night, I watched the first "Real Time With Bill Maher" program of 2014 on HBO. I've had a lot of respect for Bill Maher until last night. But, after watching Bill Maher literally give Glenn Greenwald the third degree about Edward Snowden, as if Edward Snowden was guilty of some dastardly deed when he stole NSA files proving that our government is guilty of treason against its own people, that respect has withered away.

For many years I have been somewhat angry at Bill Maher for avidly believing that the attacks of 9/11 were actually perpetrated by Osama Bin Laden and 19 hijackers with boxcutters, and when people try to offer him hard evidence to the contrary, he laughs right in their face and refuses to even consider the evidence being offered him.

Not only did he outright laugh at people in his audience who yelled out that 9/11 was a false-flag event, an inside job by the Bush administration, and treat them with total disdain and disrespect, he has actually kicked some of them out of his theater. But, what Bill Maher did to Glenn Greenwald on his program on Friday night was, for me, the straw that broke the Camel's back.

What Bill Maher and people like him don't realize is that as long as the official BS story put out by the Bush administration and the 9/11 Commission is not questioned, our government will continue to justify violating our Constitution and our Bill of Rights until they no longer exist as viable entities.
-4 # AreYouMadEnoughYet 2014-01-19 02:04
Bill Maher is a punk and a shill for the propaganda nation. He has no sense of duty or commitment to any higher calling than his own ratings and being a good dog for the people who pay him to pretend that HE is the 'radical'/'prog ressive'

How anyone can stand to watch him I have no idea. But then I don't own a television, because I can't stand any of it.
+1 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2014-01-19 03:28
For some time, I thought 9/11 was not an inside job. Now, as the facts are still rolling in, such as shorly after the terrible event, all flights out of the country were groundd (except) the airplane which was not grounded and which plane swiftly flew Osama Bin Laden's relatives OUT OF THE COUNTRY. I was watching an HBO program a few months ago. The moderator said, then president Bush was notified of an airplane crashing into the Towers and or the Pentagon while enroute and just arriving at the school where he was to participate with the school children. The film showing someone informing prsident Bush of the airliner impact was a "second" attempt to get Bush to "acknowledge" what was happeneing. And for several minutes, after he was informed, he participated with the school children while he was acting "brain dead." One other comment Bush made, I don't know where Osama is and I don't care. Suppose Osama was taken alive
rather than killed. Would we know a different story about bush, "an inside job."
+3 # fdawei 2014-01-19 01:44
"Obama's NSA 'Reforms' Inadequate, Cosmetic Gestures"

That's putting it politely, Glenn.

He scammed the people!!!
-1 # anarchteacher 2014-01-20 10:53
"Set aside justice, then, and what are kingdoms but great bands of brigands? For what are brigands' bands but little kingdoms? For in brigandage the hands of the underlings are directed by the commander, the confederacy of them is sworn together, and the pillage is shared by law among them. And if those ragamuffins grow up to be able enough to keep forts, build habitations, possess cities, and conquer adjoining nations, then their government is no longer called brigandage, but graced with the eminent name of a kingdom, given and gotten not because they have left their practices but because they use them without danger of law. Elegant and excellent was that pirate's answer to the great Macedonian Alexander, who had taken him; the king asking him how he durst molest the seas so, he replied with a free spirit: “How darest thou molest the whole earth? But because I do it only with a little ship, I am called brigand: thou doing it with a great navy art called emperor.”

– St. Augustine, City of God [413]
+1 # PABLO DIABLO 2014-01-20 22:10
Promises, promises, promises, and they will go right on spying on us. Most of it is for corporate interests, but they didn't have to drag Glenn Greenwald into court to reveal his source (Snowden), they just had to look at his email and phone records. Wake up America.

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