How Can We Tell Obama's NSA Reforms Are Weak? Michael Hayden Doesn't Have Much Of A Problem With Them

from the lots-of-hat,-very-few-cattle dept

President Obama detailed his NSA reforms last week and, as noted earlier, while they weren’t quite as weak as some thought they might be, they were still pretty toothless. If you need any confirmation that the administration’s idea of reform differs greatly from that of the NSA’s opponents, you need look no further than uber-NSA-defender Michael Hayden’s comments on Obama’s speech.

Hayden’s interview with Fox News Sunday featured this mild statement of support for Obama’s reform package.

That first third [of Obama’s speech] is the most robust defense of why we conduct intelligence and how we conduct intelligence that the president has made since he’s been in office…

Now, when you get into the substance, what he changed, I think there’s a clear pattern with both the domestic and the foreign piece. He’s going to cut back on some capacities. He hopes that the margins, cutting into agility a bit, putting administrative burdens on, that could be risky. But it looks like he’s willing to accept that risk in order to fundamentally preserve the programs.

As Hayden sees it, the reforms Obama announced do nothing to alter the essence of the NSA’s programs. It’s a haircut, at most. As the interview goes on, Hayden (and Chris Wallace) point out just how much the reform plan leaves untouched.

HAYDEN: [W]hat he’s done here — it’s very interesting, Chris. And the president’s language is very precise. He did not commit to pulling back on collection against foreign targets other than heads of state and heads of government. What he’s talking about is the retention of that data and then how it’s disseminated, and that part, he does say, we’ll use the same standards we used for American persons[…]

WALLACE: I want to make it clear though as we wrap this up. I want to move to one other subject, that basically, there’s a lot less that the president changes than what he does change. And I want to talk about that.

The government will still be able to issue national security letters of broad subpoena power. They will still be able to build backdoors into hardware and software of private companies to collect information…

HAYDEN: Absolutely. And let me add one more item to your list, about going after encryption. His commission said we should pull back on that. He never mentioned encryption once in his talk.

The main target continues to be the bulk records collection. This is a concern, and there were specific comments made about how it would be changed. But as Hayden and Wallace point out, there are several more areas where the NSA’s surveillance techniques veer into legally questionable territory, but those aren’t being addressed.

But the heart of the matter here is that this president will be very unlikely to support true reform of the agency. Obama has taken everything Bush left in place, surveillance-wise, and expanded it. Obama’s speech, however, portrays this fact very differently.

I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became President. I ordered that our programs be reviewed by my national security team and our lawyers, and in some cases I ordered changes in how we did business. We increased oversight and auditing, including new structures aimed at compliance. Improved rules were proposed by the government and approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And we sought to keep Congress continually updated on these activities.

This claim isn’t borne out by the evidence. Hayden states as much in his interview with Chris Wallace.

WALLACE: Let me get to both briefly to answer this, because the impression I get, maybe I’m wrong, General, isn’t the basic surveillance structure that George W. Bush started after 9/11, isn’t that still intact?

HAYDEN: Exactly. Of course — no, that’s exactly — the president has embraced it.

Now, we’re finally receiving some sort of concessions from a president who has been forced into a “conversation” he thought he’d never have. What Obama’s doing now is attempting to regain public support while not seriously damaging relationships within the intelligence community. It’s a political move more aimed at preserving his presidency (and legacy) than it is actual reform.

This lack of teeth is evidenced by Hayden’s comments. His main concern (not that it’s necessarily his problem anymore) is that the work “around the fringes” will result in more paperwork related to minimization and oversight (especially in terms of granting foreign citizens the same “protections” granted to Americans).

That the primary focus is the Section 215 programs is no surprise. The NSA obviously loves having it even if it fails to produce results. But it has also steered the conversation towards this program again and again, which leads to the speculation that it would be content with sacrificing it (not completely, of course, but operate it under further restrictions) in order to keep better, more useful (and potentially more privacy-violating) programs intact.

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Comments on “How Can We Tell Obama's NSA Reforms Are Weak? Michael Hayden Doesn't Have Much Of A Problem With Them”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Obama has hopes of making it look like something is being done to quell the unhappiness of the NSA being caught outside of it’s mandate, spying on the American public. Personally I don’t think it is going to work. Too many people in too many places around the world aren’t happy campers over the NSA.

Germany is threatening to take the spying to court. They were seeking reassurances and moves from Obama to curb the NSA and they didn’t get them.

You haven’t heard the end of this one by a long shot.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But hating the US Gov is far more important

As a patriotic citizen who loves this country, I think that not nearly enough hatred is being heaped upon the idiots currently in charge. I have no idea how anyone could have lived in this country these last several years and feel otherwise.
The US government, as it stands, is utterly indefensible. Our status as an international laughingstock is renewed on a weekly basis. Our leaders are incompetent to the point of treason. We’ve suffered economic crisis after economic crisis. We’re behind third-world countries in internet connectivity, despite being the home of Silicon Valley.

Any criticism the US government receives, it has earned twice over. Considering that every single person running it is still convinced that they’re right and everyone else is wrong, I’d say they aren’t criticized nearly enough.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: But hating the US Gov is far more important

As I can only assume you’re an authoritarian, you might be unfamiliar with the following idea, but it’s perfectly fine, and even expected at time to hate the government when it’s guilty of wrongdoing, while loving the country and the people, culture, and history of it.

The government is not the country, no matter how much they may claim and pretend otherwise.

Amanda says:

Google worse than NSA

Let’s be honest here. Everyone is outraged by the NSA, but they use Google and Facebook everyday. The extreme level of hypocrisy is beyond comprehension. Really? You are so enraged by the NSA, but you are totally oblivious when it comes to Google and Facebook. I highly recommend that you stop to think about this and consider using privacy-based sites such as DuckDuckGo, Ravetree, HushMail, etc. Don’t be a hypocrite.

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