An array of national security gurus with a variety of views generally agree that President Obama’s speech on the National Security Agency was more a professorial lecture than a policy announcement. Conservative Max Boot points out:
The endless, quasi-public policy review? Check. Lengthy consultations with a vast variety of experts? Check. (“I’ve listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates, and industry leaders. My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution.”) The rhetorical genuflections to appear fair to both sides. (“Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms. … [But] even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance.”) And, finally, the laboriously fashioned compromise designed to satisfy everyone, which will actually please no one, with policy proposals of exquisite if sometimes baffling nuance.
This is a pattern we have previously seen, inter alia, with regard to Middle East policy (think of the Cairo speech), Afghanistan, drones, and Guantanamo Bay. Now with the NSA.
Likewise, the Brookings Institute’s Ben Wittes concludes that the speech contained “a great deal more change spiritually than it promises in practical terms, but one that also has a few big wild cards that could, like a jack-in-a-box, spring out a few months from now as more substantial changes than they now appear to be.”
From the point of view of strong national security conservatives — whether they credit Obama for finally defending the NSA or are pleased when inertia finally works in their favor — the maze of committees, follow-ups, congressional actions and so on to follow give some hope that the NSA will keep doing what it is doing — collecting the “dots” on which our anti-terrorism operations depend. There is nevertheless more than a small amount of irritation that the president doesn’t have the courage, after finding no abuse in these important programs, to leave well enough alone.
He is quite blatantly playing to public ignorance when he says that he is doing these essentially unnecessary things, as Wittes points out, to “maintain the trust of the American people, and people around the world.” It is an odd way to build trust when you find public concerns unfounded but try to sound like you’re all for reform. Conservatives are hoping all of this is atmospheric nonsense to calm his base, while the intelligence community goes along its way and all that follow-up — like the Trayvon Martin civil rights investigation by the Justice Department — goes nowhere.