Don't be fooled: These are empty gestures, and nothing more
While I attended President Obama's Friday news conference, which largely dealt with surveillance and security, I couldn't help but wonder whether one man, eight time zones away, was watching: Edward Snowden.
Having lived in Moscow for many years, I know the Russian capital has many Friday night diversions — but what could been more interesting for Snowden than to watch the president of the United States continue to react to his bombshell revelations? Snowden probably gets a kick out of hearing the president mention his name, too — the ultimate validation of his own importance. Indeed, the president even devalued himself by taunting Snowden. If Snowden is so sure of himself and his views, Obama said, why not return home, get a lawyer, and make his case in court?
Make his case in court? You mean like Bradley Manning — just convicted of espionage and about to be sentenced to life in a military prison?
Whatever else you might think about Edward Snowden, this much is true: He's no dummy. His instinct was right from the beginning: He'll never set foot on American soil again.
That's why the big questions going forward aren't about Edward Snowden. The real NSA issues are about Obama, his ideas on surveillance, transparency, and the never-ending quest to balance security and privacy.
The president acknowledged the "instinctive bias of the intelligence community to keep everything very close." But Obama wasn't just describing the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, or any of America's other 14 intelligence agencies. He was describing himself, too. This wartime president is clearly biased in favor of secrecy and deplores leaks. His administration prosecutes offenders with a single-minded victory-at-all-cost zealotry that would make Richard Nixon proud.
Obama says he wants greater challenges to the government's positions in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) cases. This seems to suggest that prior cases haven't been as judicious as they could be. But this is just speculation, since FISC proceedings, which have always been held in secret, will continue to be held in secret. When the review of an entire national security case is held behind closed doors, how is the public to know whether government requests for added surveillance are being properly challenged? Perhaps we're supposed to take the government's word for it...
The president also says the NSA will hire a "civil liberties and privacy officer," and create a website about its mission. This sounds like a bone being tossed to appease the Fourth Amendment crowd, and not much more. It's hard to see how anyone in such an undefined role will truly know enough about the breadth and depth of the NSA's vast operations (if even told everything by bureaucrats prone to secrecy, compartmentalization, and turf warfare) to make much of an impact.
Above all, the president says he wants "greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints” on the NSA's mass collection of every American's phone records. What kind of oversight? What kind of constraints? He didn't say, only that he'll work with Congress on the matter. This all but ensures that Obama's successor, whoever he (or she) is, will be dealing with this come 2017. And given Washington's secrecy bias, that's the way the president, Congress, and the intelligence agencies prefer it. "If you want to create enemies, try to change something," Woodrow Wilson observed. That's as true today as it was a century ago. Tinkering with America's vast intelligence-gathering system is like trying to lasso a shadow; there's nothing to grab onto. But it's the appearance of trying that often counts in this cynical town, and with bigger fish for a president focused on his legacy to fry, I suspect that's good enough for Obama.
Don't expect much to change for this reason, either: Obama, badly stung by Benghazi, won't do anything that could be construed as weakening our intelligence gathering system. Republicans are happy to let him squirm on this one. If he keeps up the aggressive surveillance which is needed to keep us safe, they'll hammer him, as they are now, for violating civil liberties. But if he scales back, makes changes, they'll shift gears and say he's making us vulnerable. It's the kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma that presidents often face; Obama will maintain the status quo and deal with his civil liberty critics another time.
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