Five important questions President Obama’s NSA speech will answer

January 17

President Obama will deliver a highly anticipated speech on the National Security Agency and its surveillance programs later today, an address that, if early reports are right, will try to walk a very fine line between addressing the public's privacy concerns and preserving the government's ability to continue many of its data collection efforts.


FILE - In this file image made from video released by WikiLeaks on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden speaks during a presentation ceremony for the Sam Adams Award in Moscow, Russia. Snowden was awarded the Sam Adams Award, according to videos released by the organization WikiLeaks. The award ceremony was attended by three previous recipients. (AP Photo, File)

Here are five questions worth asking as we await Obama's speech.

1. Does he mention Edward Snowden by name?

President Obama -- and his administration -- have been reluctant to credit Snowden with beginning this broader conversation about the NSA and its surveillance programs, insisting that they were in the  midst of re-examining many of the programs prior to his leaks. At a press conference in August 2013, Obama drew headlines when he said that he didn't think Snowden was a "patriot." Slamming Snowden might not be a bad idea for Obama since six in 10 Americans in a November Washington Post-ABC News poll said they believed Snowden had harmed U.S. security with his leaks. But, Obama quite clearly wants to avoid the idea that this speech -- and the reforms he plans to announce -- are directly or even indirectly attributed to Snowden. The best way to do that is to never mention the most famous leaker in the world.

2.  Does Obama say "sorry" (or something like it)?

Obama has spent most of his time since the revelations about the extent of the NSA's spying programs defending their necessity -- although it's clear he has evolved from his forceful insistence in June 2013 of the necessity of what the government was doing. But, Obama has never said he was sorry for not better informing the public of at least some of the information that was being gathered.  It seems unlikely, given what we know about the speech, that Obama will choose now to offer a broad apology -- particularly when you consider that people like New York Rep. Pete King have already scolded the president for "being defensive" about what the NSA does.

3. How strongly will Obama defend the necessity of much of this data gathering?

As we noted above, Obama has moved -- rhetorically at least -- from the hard-line stance he took on the need for these NSA programs when Snowden first took his information public. But, he also quite clearly believes that these programs work and that the solution is not to end them but rather to give the public more of a voice in them. Here's Obama from his year-end press conference: "The question we're going to have to ask is can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that in fact the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing." Does Obama echo that idea -- which posits that the problem is not the programs themselves but rather the fact that the public doesn't believe in or fully understand the programs? Which leads us to...

4. Are privacy advocates/liberals in the Senate placated?

The answer to this one seems likely to be "no." Again, nothing we have seen in the early readouts of the speech suggest that Obama plans to drastically alter the information gathering apparatus in place.  That fact alone will be enough to doom the speech in the eyes of many privacy advocates. The bigger question is whether Obama can convince liberals in the Senate -- Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Pat Leahy (Vt.) being the two most important/influential -- that his proposed reforms have teeth and address some of the privacy concerns they have raised. How liberals within Congress react will be a telling indicator of whether Obama's gambit to turn to Congress for more guidance will undermine or strengthen his position vis a vis the necessity of the NSA's surveillance mandate.

5. Does Obama go far enough to appease foreign allies angered by the extent of U.S. spying?

One of the most overlooked aspects of the Snowden revelations is the damage they have done to the president's personal relationships with foreign leaders -- most notably in Germany and Brazil. One leading adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Reuters this week that diplomatic relations between the two countries were at a lower ebb than even during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.  At his press conference at the end of 2013, Obama acknowledged that "we've got to provide more confidence to the international community" but it remains to be seen whether (and how) he does that in his speech. And, even more difficult to game out is whether people like Merkel see an olive branch offered and accept it or, for reasons tied to their own political situations, choose to turn away even if Obama stretches out his hand to them.

Fixbits:

Sen Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) plans to retire.

Congress passed a $1.1 trillion funding bill.

Former California lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado (R) dropped his bid for governor.

Businessman Matt Bevin (R) raised $900,000 in the fourth quarter for his campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Some House Republicans are talking about not writing a budget in 2014.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) hired legal counsel.

He also went to the Jersey Shore.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) talked House retirements.

Must-reads:

"Climate groups part ways with Obama on energy" -- Juliet Eilperin and Lenny Bernstein, Washington Post

"Women are wielding notable influence in Congress" -- Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post

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