It’s business as usual for the NSA

US President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, January 17, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama speaks about the National Security Agency and surveillance techniques. (Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

President Obama offered a ton of safeguards but no sweeping reforms in his long-awaited speech on surveillance. It’s clear that German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t have to worry about having her phone tapped anymore. For the rest of humanity, however, it sounds pretty much like business as usual.

Obama’s bottom line is that the National Security Agency (NSA) will continue compiling its massive log of all domestic phones calls — at least for now. Perhaps a way will be found for some other entity to house those records, but one way or another, the NSA will still require — and obtain — access to the information.

Obama announced that temporarily, until a review is completed at the end of March, the government will only search the phone call database by judicial order or in a “true emergency.” But for anyone who questions whether a comprehensive record of our private communications should be compiled in the first place, the president’s message was: Get over it.

The president said he recognized the need for greater “transparency” about electronic surveillance practices. He offered some hope on this front, but no guarantees.

One of the biggest outrages revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden is that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has stretched the meaning of federal law and the Constitution to accommodate the NSA’s voracious appetites — and didn’t bother to tell anyone. After all, what does democracy mean if we the people are not allowed to know what our laws mean?

The bulk collection of “metadata” on all our phone calls was made possible by the surveillance court’s interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to compel the surrender of “tangible things” that pertain to an “authorized investigation” of international terrorism.

As the secret court interpreted that language, there doesn’t need to be a specific investigation. Moreover, pertinent records include all of them — not just the phone calls of individuals believed to be linked in some way to terrorism, but those of law-abiding Americans as well.

Obama proposed today that the phone records be kept in a kind of electronic escrow and that the NSA obtain a subpoena to the data.

Assuming that the administration comes up with a solution in which the government does not technically house the phone data, what would keep the NSA from arguing that in order to conduct a terrorism investigation, it needs to search the whole database — just as it does today? And what would keep the surveillance court, based on its earlier rulings, from agreeing?

This may sound improbable, but keep in mind that the authors of the Patriot Act never envisioned that it would be used to collect private information on hundreds of millions of Americans. And the thing is, if the surveillance court did allow the NSA to go back to business as usual, as things now stand we’d never know about it because the court’s proceedings and rulings are secret.

Obama said that he has ordered an annual review by intelligence officials for the purpose of declassifying any rulings by the surveillance court “with broad privacy implications.” If the administration follows through, at least we might be informed the next time the NSA expands its reach into our private lives. Then again, given that this will be a judgment call, maybe not.

The most definitive announcement from Obama was that the NSA will no longer eavesdrop on the private conversations of the leaders of allied nations. That’s why Merkel can relax. The rest of us, not so much.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.
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