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Obama's tepid agenda for NSA reform

Our view: It will take more than half-hearted promises of transparency to make Americans 'comfortable' with domestic surveillance

2:38 PM EDT, August 12, 2013

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President Barack Obama says he wants to make Americans more "comfortable" with the massive domestic and foreign electronic surveillance efforts being undertaken by the National Security Agency. But missing from his answers to questions about it at a news conference on Friday or from his proposals for reform was any understanding of what it is that made Americans uncomfortable in the first place.

Mr. Obama seems to think it is the manner in which news of the NSA's programs came out, and not the content of them, that has Americans so upset. He blamed the media for sensationalizing the information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, saying the release of documents in "dribs and drabs, sometimes coming out sideways" has given the people of the world a misperception of what it is that the agency does.

Nonetheless, he proposed a series of reforms that would be only modestly helpful. The most significant of them is to create some kind of privacy advocate to argue against the government in proceedings before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Our judicial system is premised on the idea of adversarial proceedings, but the secret court that, for example, approved the NSA's efforts to collect data on every telephone call made in the United States hears only one side of the story and rarely denies requests from the executive branch. Oversight, such as it is, comes from Congressional intelligence committees, which also tend to be filled by backers of the government's surveillance efforts, no matter which party is in control.

It will be difficult for the public to know, however, just how effective this devil's advocate is in representing its interests. Since the court proceedings are secret, and the court's opinions are generally not made public, it will be impossible to know whether the advocate is really representing the public's interests. Other reforms the president promised — hiring a civil liberties officer at the NSA, creating a task force to review the government's surveillance operations and creating a website to explain the NSA's mission — were altogether unimpressive.

Just how seriously does the president take this? Not very, if you measure the metaphor he used to describe his grudging acknowledgment of the public's discomfort. He likened the situation to First Lady Michelle Obama asking him whether he had done the dishes (back when he used to do dishes, that is). "She's a little skeptical," he said. "Well, I'd like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes." What he fails to appreciate is that we are talking about something a little more serious than dirty dishes, and for that matter, we are less worried about the (no doubt) pristine dishes he will show us than about the status of the other complete set that he isn't telling us about and which were paid for with secret, off-budget funds.

Mr. Obama can say all he wants about the extensive safeguards in place to ensure the appropriate use of the data the NSA collects, and he can promise us that the programs are not being abused. But Mr. Snowden is living, breathing proof that the government's ability to control access to its secrets is not absolute. The only way to ensure that information about Americans' private conduct is not abused is for the government not to collect and store it in the first place. Until Mr. Obama comes to that realization, any reforms he proposes are going to fall short.