January 17, 2014
Obama speaks on NSA surveillance President Barack Obama speaks about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Obama demonstrated again Friday the unlikely fact that this former community organizer is most sure-footed in his role as covert commander in chief making decisions about intelligence activities.

In a speech at the Justice Department, Obama outlined a calibrated set of reforms in response to the global uproar that has followed revelations of secret activities of the National Security Agency by former employee Edward Snowden. He moved to control the most controversial surveillance activities, such as collection of telephone “metadata” by the NSA and bugging the phones of close allies, such as Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel. But at the same time, he affirmed the NSA’s core mission of collecting signals intelligence around the globe.

Obama identified himself with dissidents such as Dr. Martin Luther King, “who were spied on by their own governments,” but said he is now “a president who looks at intelligence every morning” and is responsible for protecting the nation’s security. Liberal critics, who protested after the speech that his reforms didn’t go far enough, will argue that the second self-definition has obliterated the first.

The president accompanied his reform proposals with a tutorial on intelligence history that was the most open and focused discussion of the topic I can remember from any president. This is an area where the cerebral, reticent Obama seems to have a natural instinct that’s missing in some other areas of his approach to governing. “We will not apologize simply because our [intelligence] services may be more effective” than those of other nations, Obama said at one point, almost relishing his status as the nation’s spymaster.

For Obama, one of the visceral realities of being president is that he must authorize lethal missions and toxic covert actions to protect the national security. He embraced this role most dramatically in approving the May 2011 mission to kill Osama Bin Laden which was a rare public triumph for the dark arts. But the NSA furor has been the opposite—one of the nightmares of his presidency, at times engulfing his national security adviser, Susan Rice.

Obama’s speech set several markers that may last far beyond his term of office. First, by publicly articulating what that NSA does and why some of that activity is necessary for national security, he grounded an organization whose anonymity was summarized in the quip that its initials stood for “No Such Agency.” Now, the president has endorsed the NSA’s core mission and said “we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.”

Second, by placing limits on NSA collection and retention of data, Obama has set clearer rules to prevent the NSA from becoming the technological Leviathan its capabilities allow. The devil is in the details, here, and Obama has wisely decided to wait for more advice on the precise changes he will make. But it’s clear we are entering a new era with much more transparency and legal review of NSA activities.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, Obama has signaled a desire to extend privacy rights to foreigners—not just the leaders of friendly countries, but their citizens, too. He’s not offering the protection of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure—you still have to be an American citizen to get that. But it’s significant for a president to affirm that that global citizens have a right to be protected against unwarranted snooping by the world’s only superpower.

The import of all these measures isn’t simply that they will protect against civil-liberties abuses, at home and abroad. They are also meant to provide an anchor of public acknowledgement and legitimacy for what the NSA does. If Obama can achieve the firmer legal and ethical grounding of surveillance activities, in the ways he outlined Friday, it will be one of the significant accomplishments of his presidency.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
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