What Convinced Obama To Change His Position On NSA Surveillance?

from the because-it-sure-was-a-mess dept

Since details of the NSA's surveillance programs started coming to light in early June -- and President Obama's been forced to publicly answer for its activities -- the president has repeatedly reminded us that he came into office with a "healthy skepticism about these programs." But, after careful evaluation, he determined "that on, you know, net, it was worth doing."

Some of these programs I had been critical of when I was in the Senate. When I looked through specifically what was being done, my determination was that the two programs in particular that had been at issue, 215 and 702, offered valuable intelligence that helps us protect the American people and they're worth preserving. (From his August 9th Press Conference.)

It's a rhetorical strategy intended to win his critics' trust by demonstrating that he understands our concerns because he used to share them. The message he wants us to take away is: if we had been in his shoes and saw the evidence he saw when he got into office, we would have signed off on these programs too.

Well, this week we got a glimpse of some of the evidence he saw when he assumed office -- at least in connection to the NSA's collection of U.S. phone call records -- and, it begs the question, what exactly changed his mind about the NSA's domestic surveillance programs? What did the President see that led him to the conclusion that everything he had previously said on the topic was wrong because allowing the NSA to collect everyone's phone call records really is a constitutionally-supported, great idea?

Because, according to the documents the ODNI released this week, when President Obama took office, the NSA's "telephony metadata" program wasn't getting stellar reviews. In fact, we now know that days prior to Obama’s inauguration, the NSA reported that it had repeatedly violated the court-ordered rules limiting its use of the data it was collecting.  A little over a month later, a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court found that, "Since January 15 [five days before Obama's inauguration] it has finally come to light that the FISC's authorizations of this vast collection program have been premised on a flawed depiction of how the NSA uses" the phone call data.

Not only had the Intelligence Community been misrepresenting its program to the court, the judge, Reggie B. Walton, went on to write

The minimization procedures proposed by the government in each successive application and approved and adopted as binding by the orders of the FISC have been so frequently and systemically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall BR regime has never functioned effectively.


To approve such a program, the Court must have every confidence that the government is doing its utmost to ensure that those responsible for implementation fully comply with the Court's orders. The Court no longer has such confidence.

The judge also implied that -- other than hypothetical examples of how this data might provide intelligence of "immense value to the government" -- the government had yet to provide the court with concrete evidence that the program was actually providing that value.

This program has been ongoing for nearly three years. The time has come for the government to describe to the Court how, based on the information collected and analyzed during that time, the value of the program to the nation's security justifies the continued collection and retention of massive quantities of U.S. person information.

Again, Judge Walton reached these conclusions based on evidence that was available to him at the very same time that I imagine President Obama and his team were evaluating these programs. Plus, I'm assuming the president considered Judge Walton's opinion in his evaluation, right?

So, what exactly convinced President Obama that this was "worth doing?" Because as the president explained last month, the prospect that something could happen isn't the same as actual evidence that it has or ever will.

Jennifer Hoelzer is a long-time Congressional staffer with tremendous expertise on national security issues. This story is cross-posted from from her site, with permission, but you should check out her site for more insightful analysis of national security issues.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 5:21am

    I have in mind that the US President (regardless who) is but a puppet of an established system. Bush liked it and fit perfectly (possibly heaping benefits). Obama may have actually believed in his ideals before entering office but he was forced to fit. Or not, I'm speculating I admit. I don't think he changed his mind. Either he was deceiving the Americans from the start or his mind "was changed" by force.

    I found his his latest speech quite interesting. He seemed very far from the eloquence, cohesion we are used to see. It was a confused, tired speech. This scandal is taking its toll on the President and possibly the White House. Is it a sign the system is collapsing? Who knows.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:01am

    these powers no longer seems ominous and overbearing when they are yours

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:16am


    The NSA probably showed the president some of the dirt they have on him and he decided it wasn't worth it to fight against them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:18am

    Let's assume for a moment the absurd idea that the dragnet surveillance "works" to protect against the "terrorists".

    Ok - so then why the hell is he spying on EU and latin governments and politicians, too? Or on corporations? Surely he doesn't think the terrorists are hiding there, does he?

    Also, who forced him to change the policies in 2011 so they get data on Americans, too? Aren't the terrorists supposed to come from Middle East?

    Of course, every reason he gives or excuse, are pure bullshit, and the real agendas are totally different for the dragnet surveillance for everyone.

    Time to impeach him. That's why we have the Constitution right? So the politicians aren't above the law, either. So when they BLATANTLY break it, the way Obama is doing, there's no alternative than to impeach him.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:26am

    Is it a sign the system is collapsing?


    The continued ideas of lies, deceit, hate, and slavery as embodied in totalitarianism as lead by the likes of Stalin, Mow, and which formulate the very foundation of political psychologically of liberalism whose object is to liberate one of their money, life, and liberty is fracturing due to the mass media hate-bastards inability to continue to control, twist, and subvert all news and information delivery.

    The cat is out of the bag. The labors and producers are no longer subservient to a class of wine drinking bongo players who owe their very existence to government subsidiarity.

    The old labor movement was a fight between the organizers of production, capitalists, and actual physical doers of production, labors. Both sides capitalists and labors were engaged in production.

    This fight is between the producers of production and the non-producers of production, parasites.

    The producers offer work which no one wants to do but is required for existence while the non-producers offer the consumption of unlimited pleasure which everyone wants but leads to extermination by starvation and disease.

    The producers offer a life of satisfaction.
    The non-producers offer a life of dependency.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:28am

    You know, if we actually had the option to vote on bad bills "Patriot Act" we would not be in the mess we are now.
    Bills that affect so many people should be voted on by the
    public and not 535.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Pragmatic, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:28am


    The House of Representatives has the sole power of impeaching, while the United States Senate has the sole power to try all impeachments. The removal of impeached officials is automatic upon conviction in the Senate. - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impeachment_in_the_United_States#Impeachment_of_a_U.S._President

    Giv en that he'd take the Republican party with him, good luck with that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    out_of_the_blue, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:28am

    What a lame re-hash. -- EVERY politician reverses once in office.

    And they all fly their damn dogs around at public expense.

    It's now manifest that your expertise is strictly politics and politicians, typical inside-the-Beltway trivia, taking focus of their actual crimes.

    Reviewed your text after writing mine, and opinion holds up. You've nothing except the usual weenie puzzlement: we were promised, what happened? Sheesh! It's as though you can't believe that politicians LIE consistently! At best you're too close to politicians to see their evil.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Pragmatic, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:29am


    You want a referendum for every bill in either of the Houses? They all affect us on some level.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:36am

    Dare I say it? Perhaps he changed his mind to some to degree because of two factors. First, he was elected President and did not have the luxury of lobbing criticisms over the wall. He had to make decisions. Second, he had access to very detailed information far transcending in quantity the very few tidbits that seem to be positively orgasmic to many in the media.

    None of this means that his position is unassailable, but only that those speaking with a 1 milliradian FOV do not nave that which is available the President and senior administration officials.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Chris ODonnell (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:52am


    Basically, the President isn't really the one in charge? I can buy that, but it's scary to think about who really is calling the shots.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:53am

    And the Star Chamber Chair goes to....

    OK, so we elect a person president, based upon their stated positions. They get into that office and are presented with some sort of 'fait accompli' and voila there is a new position in the mind of our newly elected official.

    Who delivers that information? Who instructs the person who delivers that information? What organization exists beyond the election system, that survives the election system and keeps on giving and giving and giving?

    What kind of information is presented, blackmail, secret secrets, 'proof' of something dastardly?

    How does one get on this committee? What kind of golden parachute do they offer?

    Are they:

    The Federal Reserve?
    The Wall Street Gang?
    The Military/Industrial Complex?
    The Church of Scientology?
    The Masons?
    All of the Above
    All of the Above plus Other(s)
    None of the Above but like something more socially...err...electorally acceptable?

    Start conspiracy engines, warp factor 9. Engage!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:57am

    Not to be a pedant, but the improper usage of "begs the question" really irks me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 8:10am


    I like the ideal, I hate how it is actually implemented. See: CA proposition system.... By any fair measure, they can pass anything.... Anything with a headline on the ballot. If the system actually worked, and they did what is purported in the blurb that normal people read, CA should have manually scrubbed every h2o molecule in the country by now. Debt on a dream. Profit on short attention span.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Mike D, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 8:39am


    She's using it as correctly as can be done in modern writing, which is a synonym for "raises the question". She's not using it as a fallacy.

    What *DID* change his mind? That's the question. She poses it without trying to establish a conclusion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 8:40am



    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 8:43am

    Obama said: "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,"
    Snowden leaks reveal: "Yes they are", VOIP calls in particular is datamined extensively. All of your internet/email/searches etc. all data mined, all recorded.
    Obama said: "if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they've got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation."
    Snowden leaks: They just click a button, there is an office rule about getting a warrant if both people are Americans, but that's their call to make. Lots of calls are already in the database and needs no warrant because no outside agency needs legal coercion, they just listen to the recording they already got via an earlier blanket warrant.
    They only log what they want to log.
    Obama said: "Trust me, we're doing the right thing. We know who the bad guys are.'"
    Snowden leaks: Everyone on the planet is being spied on, they don't know who the bad guys are till they define them.
    Obama said: "every member of Congress" had been briefed on the spy programs."
    Snowden leaks: Almost nobody in Congress had been briefed on the spy programs.
    Obama said: "they have a pretty good hunch before [they spy on them]"
    I play my hunch on the lottery, it never pays off and has better odds. They don't have a hunch Bob2635 is a terrorist, they just didn't like something he said, or something he searched for, so label him one.
    Obama said: "It is transparent"
    Snowden leaks shows he's a liar.

    All Obama is doing is trying to rescue his Presidency. Fancy words from a lawyer trying to pretend his client didn't murder the constitution.

    Snowden for President, because Snowden saw more of what was *really* going on in the NSA than Obama. Obama's just a bit-player in this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    ahow628 (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 8:58am


    Hopefully they declassify the Obama blackmail documents soon. Those would be entertaining to say the least.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 9:10am

    The scene... The Oval Office a few days after the President has been sworn in (no particular President, anyone from the last 50 years will do).

    The President has had back to back briefings covering everything from what tie to wear at the next Whitehouse dinner to the launch codes for the ICBMs, but there appears to be a brief break in his schedule. Half an hour to sit quietly and process some of the information he been given.

    Instead, in walks an anonymous grey man in an anonymous grey suit. He says nothing but hands the President a folder. The President looks puzzled at first, but he opens the folder. As he scans the contents his heart sinks. He sees details of questionable business deals, political fixes and inappropriate liaisons with the opposite sex, same sex or farm animals - any number of "killer" details if leaked. Not necessarily the Presidents little foibles are detailed in the folder - maybe family or close friend or aide or campaign donor or ally.

    The implication is clear. The grey man says nothing as he collects the folder from the President's hands, but as he gets to the door he says quietly "We'll be in touch..."

    Pure speculation you understand...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    tubes42024, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 9:39am


    This is the best version of the truth of what it must be to be the "elected" presidential puppet. It goes along with exactly what you were saying.


    RIP Bill Hicks

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 9:40am


    I like this idea. And - in the 21st century - seems kinda easy. I mean - if the banks can put an ATM machine on every corner and feel that it is safe from theft...

    Amazon can keep track of a million orders per day.
    Fedex can ship millions per day.
    these aren't edge cases - but real cases.

    why can't the people vote directly via the internet?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 10:04am

    Re: Re:

    Bought and/or coerced votes. Oh right, thats what we already have.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    Ninja (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 10:12am

    Re: Re:

    As Zygmunt Bauman reasonably said the Governments that should be the ones possessing and wielding power responsibly have lost such power to the money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    John Doe, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 10:27am

    Let me answer this for you

    What convinced him is when he realized he could target Republicans and conservative groups and individuals. This, my friends, is the real threat of the surveillance. Those in power will tend to stay in power once they have enough dirt on enough people in the opposing party.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. icon
    OldMugwump (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 10:59am

    Re: Perhaps he had good reasons


    Or, perhaps, power seems less dangerous when it's in one's own hands.

    Or, maybe, he's being blackmailed by the NSA (we are all human...) and feels he has no choice. (That's how J. Edgar Hoover stayed in power till death.)

    It's hard to tell, isn't it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Rekrul, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 11:03am

    Obama lied to get elected. How hard is that to understand?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    AdamBv1 (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 11:47am


    I'm starting to wonder if one of the reasons why he has not been impeached is our wonderful friend Joe Biden. As much as everyone hates Obama at this point in time can anyone really say he would be an improvement?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    That One Guy (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 11:49am

    What changed his mind?

    If I had to guess, shortly after his inauguration someone from the NSA popped in for a friendly hello, congratulations on the win, and oh by the way, that recording/data-mining covers his communications too, so have a nice day!

    I mean, if an agency is going to scoop up unprecedented amounts of communications from everyone they possibly can, has a reputation for lying directly to those that ask them questions, and don't take kindly to people challenging their authority, how much of a stretch would it really be to assume they've got blackmail material on anyone who might present a problem to them?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. identicon
    PRMan, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 12:01pm

    Re: Dirt

    You mean like a copy of his Kenyan Birth Certificate?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. identicon
    PRMan, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 12:03pm

    Re: Re:

    You know, in that light I'm beginning to understand Sarah Palin's nomination...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    PRMan, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 12:07pm

    Re: Re:

    In California we vote and then the judges do whatever they want anyway. We made a constitutional amendment that disallowed defined marriage as being only between a man and a woman. This didn't preclude equal rights for domestic partnerships, which already existed. But judges can still ignore our constitution whenever they want because the media thinks it's an enlightened view.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. icon
    Jay (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 12:18pm

    Re: Re:

    Keith Alexander. The bureacracy of the system made him quite powerful. Him, James Clapper, and many others that ensure that things they don't like never see the light of day. Meanwhile, the public can't change these bureaucrats unless they can force them in the spotlight through these types of leaks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 1:52pm


    When they are tapped into all worldwide communications it really is that simple, no conspiracies required.
    If the don't comply remind them of the late John F. Kennedy

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. identicon
    Anonymous, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 2:47pm

    This is the same guy who promised to close down Guantanamo Bay prison. He's another slimy, lying politician. 'Nuff said.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. icon
    bgmcb (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 11:48pm

    Fly on the wall

    It's early '08 Senator Obama is in his office. A man steps in.
    Senator Obama: "What the! Where's my sec-"
    Stranger: "She'll be fine. Your making a bit of hay with this NSA stuff. It might play well with your friends. Do you think that will get you any traction? We've been watching you. We think you have potential."
    Senator Obama: "Who's we"
    Stranger: "You know. You want to be President. Do you think your enemies won't find out?
    Senator Obama: "What?"
    Stranger: "You climbed through Chicago politics, you think the muck washed away? No one else needs to know. We've been shaping politics for a while now. You can't make it without our help."
    Senator Obama: "What do you want in return?"
    Stranger: "Loyalty. We protect our friends and expect the same in return."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36. identicon
    Anonymous, Sep 15th, 2013 @ 6:58am

    Re: Fly on the wall

    Fly On The Wall? Good song! Ahh, back when Miley had hair...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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