When President Barack Obama delivers his speech on alleged surveillance reforms on Friday, he will not be suggesting measures that will truly prevent future abuse of surveillance powers. He will be advocating for reforms that could prevent another whistleblower like NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
From The Hill:
The Obama administration plans to overhaul the nation’s security clearance system to prevent future intelligence leaks like the one by former defense contractor Edward Snowden.
The changes, part of a package of reforms President Obama is expected to announce Friday during a speech at the Justice Department, will include more stringent — and more frequent — vetting of security clearances, according to sources familiar with the administration’s plans.
Obama will embrace the panel’s recommendation that “security clearances become more highly differentiated and that a new clearance level be created to limit the sensitive material that information technology workers can access.”
Also, according to The Hill, “Those with security clearances may also be subject to ‘continuous monitoring,’ with things like changes in credit ratings, arrests, or suspicious reports from fellow employees becoming incorporated regularly into a review of employees’ clearances.”
Obamaa will reject recommendations from his own handpicked NSA review group and not adopt measures that could have made a “substantial overhaul to the NSA” possible. That includes moving NSA’s cyber defense group, the Information Assurance Directorate, to the Pentagon, and reassigning missions “other than foreign intelligence collection away from the agency.”
He already rejected splitting the NSA from US Cyber Command so a civilian could run the NSA.
It has been clear in recent weeks that this was all a fantasy, the idea that Obama was going to “overhaul” any surveillance programs or take on the surveillance state.
The New York Times described Obama’s strategy for responding to disclosures from Snowden as “trying to straddle a difficult line that will placate civil liberties advocates without a backlash from national security agencies.” In other words, he does not think much of anything needs to be done at all but he wants “civil liberties advocates” to stop nipping at his heels.
So, as the Times reported:
Mr. Obama plans to increase limits on access to bulk telephone data, call for privacy safeguards for foreigners and propose creation of a public advocate to represent privacy concerns at a secret intelligence court. But he will not endorse leaving bulk data in the custody of telecommunications firms nor will he require court permission for all so-called national security letters seeking business records.
The bulk metadata that so many Americans have learned gives government the power to intrude upon their privacy will be kept, preserving the potential for abuse. There will be nothing done to adjust the process of national security letters issued by the FBI, a recommended reform from the review group which received little attention but sharp criticism from FBI director James Comey.
Perhaps, unsatisfied with the outcome of this NSA review group report, the Obama administration will now have Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who oversaw the first review group, oversee a second review to further advise the president on what should be done. The agency’s chief, who lied to Congress, will remain in charge of the nation’s intelligence community—able to stave off reforms that would limit any powers.
“Code breakers and code makers,” will not be separated. “Some critics of the NSA,” as the Times noted, “were disturbed that the agency’s encryption team charged with bolstering online security systems against hackers was working with the team that tries to penetrate computer systems used by terrorists.” So, undermining encryption standards worldwide will be accepted as the cost of doing business.
If it seems the Obama administration is likely to refrain from supporting many reforms that would protect privacy, the opposite is true for measures to prevent future Snowdens.
Obama will take additional actions to “consolidate the background review process so that checks” can only be “performed by the government or a designated nonprofit entity,” according to The Hill. “The administration will examine implementing new restrictions on how and when cleared personnel can access specific information.”
Whatever happens is likely to be similar or an expansion of an “Insider Threat” program already implemented by Obama. As McClatchy’s Marisa Taylor and Jonathan Landay reported, the “unprecedented initiative” is “sweeping in its reach.” It “extends beyond the US national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of ‘insider threat’ give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.”
“Millions of federal employees and contractors,” according to the Taylor and Landay, “must watch for ‘high-risk persons or behaviors’ among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them.” And, “Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.”
Developed and put into place after Chelsea Manning released hundreds of thousands of documents published by WikiLeaks, this neo-McCarthyist program made it easier to “stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations of loyal Americans,” according to experts and current and former officials.
This has been what President Obama was planning to do all along: figure out what more could be done so he would not be in this position again where the nation’s surveillance capabilities were being scrutinized so severely that secretive intelligence agencies had to answer questions and address outrage on a daily basis.
It is all about “perception.” To government officials, Snowden and the journalists reporting on his disclosures have helped create a “perception” that the NSA is engaged in rampant abuse and nobody in the three branches of government has stopped the NSA from illegal surveillance.
These days they hate Snowden more than any terrorist they are targeting.* Their collective answer is, what do we do to prevent future leaks so this “perception” that undermines trust in intelligence agencies does not happen again?
A favored solution has been to have employees inform on each other. Suspicious employees can have their names handed over to the Justice Department, and they can be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. (Note: A record number of Americans have been prosecuted by this president for “leaks” with this World War 1-era law.)
Rather than embrace a reaffirmation and restoration of constitutional rights, Obama has chosen to allow agencies in the national security state to become even more insular and autocratic internally.
All reforms will be cosmetic—that is, unless civil liberties advocates and citizens refuse to be patronizingly placated by this president and the figureheads who have been entrusted with powers to transform the world into a massive surveillance state.
Photo by Steve Jurvetson, used under Creative Commons license