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Obama's NSA Speech: Review Without Review, Reform Without Reform

Obama’s speech on intelligence gathering was the full on horseshit performance many of us thought it would be.

Obama began with a revisionist, some might say tortured, reworking of American history which placed the NSA in the tradition of Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty. I guess what they say is true, that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels and Obama’s wrapping the NSA’s war on the Constitution up in the flag certainly qualifies.

But it is when Obama arrives at 9/11 that he really goes off the rails and dispenses with any semblance of reality.

“Across the political spectrum, Americans recognized that we had to adapt to a world in which a bomb could be built in a basement, and our electric grid could be shut down by operators an ocean away. We were shaken by the signs we had missed leading up to the attacks -- how the hijackers had made phone calls to known extremists and traveled to suspicious places. So we demanded that our intelligence community improve its capabilities, and that law enforcement change practices to focus more on preventing attacks before they happen than prosecuting terrorists after an attack.

It is hard to overstate the transformation America’s intelligence community had to go through after 9/11.”

The first question is who is this “we” Obama is talking about? OK, that’s a rhetorical question. Obama is simply engaged in a standard dodge where he invokes most Americans and subsequently stuffs his words into their mouths. I don’t know about you but the 9/11 hijackers didn’t scare me or most of the people I know into thinking about bombs built in basements or for possible use against the electric grid. After all, Timothy McVeigh, a homegrown terrorist, had done the homemade bomb thing years before in Oklahoma City. This sparked exactly zero calls for the NSA to engage in massive spying on Americans. Nor was there any push for a war on America’s wacko right, the movement out of which McVeigh came.

I for one was less concerned about the intelligence community improving its capabilities and more concerned with them and our political leaders doing their f*cking jobs. It had been known for years that Saudi Arabia’s monarchy had seen outwardly directed terrorism and funding of terrorism as an important relief valve for pressures built up by that monarchy’s toxic brew of financial corruption, political repression, and religious fanaticism. Bush, Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice were so interested in maintaining close relations with the big oil producer that they repeatedly ignored all the signals from that same intelligence community in the lead up to 9/11. Because of their negligence, dots that could have been connected were not. If there had been a government wide warning, agencies that had some indications would have been able to re-evaluate the information they had and make those connections.

What Obama is invoking is the old canard that 9/11 happened because our intelligence community failed us. This is untrue. 9/11 happened because our political leaders failed us. The intelligence was there. It was just dismissed. Other than some minor modifications concerned with intelligence sharing in certain specific situations, there was no transformation that the nation’s intelligence community needed to go through post 9/11.

Instead the Bush-Cheney Administration which could have prevented 9/11 but so spectacularly failed to do so seized on the terrorist attack, exploited the resulting fear and uncertainty, and pushed through the foundations of the Stasi like police surveillance/police state we now live under. More than this, where the gross violations of the Constitution in the Patriot Act were insufficient to their ambition, they simply proceeded based on the flimsiest of legal justifications provided to them by their sockpuppets in the Department of Justice.

Obama says,

“Today, new capabilities allow intelligence agencies to track who a terrorist is in contact with, and follow the trail of his travel or his funding. New laws allow information to be collected and shared more quickly and effectively between federal agencies, and state and local law enforcement. Relationships with foreign intelligence services have expanded, and our capacity to repel cyber-attacks have been strengthened. And taken together, these efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives -- not just here in the United States, but around the globe.”

This is another case of misdirection. After the initial American incursion into Afghanistan, al Qaeda lost its bases and most of its operational capabilities. Since then, traditional law enforcement techniques, not the new police state, have been responsible for thwarting attacks against the US. And in this group I am not including the various sting operations where the government orchestrates and grooms pathetic terrorist wannabes before arresting them.

At the same time, successful acts of terror, like the Boston marathon bombing, occurred despite this vast apparatus, and, like 9/11 before it, despite numerous conventional warnings that were ignored.

Nor does Obama take into account in this calculus the thousands of American soldiers killed, tens of thousands maimed, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary innocent people killed around the world by the Bush-Obama, useless but incredibly expensive, and dangerous to democracy, War on Terror.

As President, Obama embraced and expanded the Bush surveillance state. As has so often been said, Obama institutionalized the excesses of the Bush years and in doing so legitimized them. So he is simply lying when he says, “I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became President.”

As the conservative Andrew Bacevich remarked way back in 2008 to a question posed by Bill Moyers,

BILL MOYERS: Do you expect either John McCain or Barack Obama to rein in the "imperial presidency?"

ANDREW BACEVICH: No. I mean, people run for the presidency in order to become imperial presidents. The people who are advising these candidates, the people who aspire to be the next national security advisor, the next secretary of defense, these are people who yearn to exercise those kind of great powers.

Until Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA, Obama was perfectly fine with the NSA and the police state he was happily expanding. Nor has his attitude changed in any material way. He has always viewed Snowden as a nuisance and Snowden’s revelations as a public relations problem.

What Obama describes as “healthy skepticism” looks more like infatuation and a man crush to anyone else. Obama says he knew about the NSA programs from the start of his Administration but did not stop them

“-- not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.”

It’s hard to fix a problem if you can’t even admit there is a problem. Obama’s whole propaganda line can be reduced down to “our intelligence community follows the law, and is staffed by patriots.” And “When mistakes are made -- which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise -- they correct those mistakes.” Obama trots out all the old saws about these people having a difficult, thankless job but great responsibilities in that they “know that if another 9/11 or massive cyber-attack occurs, they will be asked, by Congress and the media, why they failed to connect the dots.”

Of course, this is all BS piled on BS. The NSA has no history of preventing terrorist attacks. It didn’t stop 9/11. It didn’t stop the Boston bombers. These are not dot connecting people. At least, they do not connect the dots that most Americans are interested in. Obama is not reforming an out of control agency. He is instead engaging in a full-throated defense of it. But this being kabuki, Obama has to pretend that this isn’t a defense but a serious review. This just raises the question of why Obama feels he needs to review what doesn’t need reviewing. Well, those of us who inhabit the real world know there is a two word answer to this question: Edward Snowden. Obama, of course, can not admit this. So he says that the review of the intelligence community was an incidental outgrowth of his review of his drone assassination program. It is a case of Obama going the extra mile, even when he doesn’t need to. As evidence of this, he cites a speech he made to the National Defense University before the Snowden disclosures. But this is a lie. Prior to the Snowden releases, the Obama Administration had been caught spying on the AP news agency. And his speech at the NDU was in response to this. This whole incident would have been flushed down the memory hole months ago. Indeed Obama’s failure to mention it shows it has been. No, the only reason Obama feels pressured into engaging in this kabuki exercise is Edward Snowden.

Obama makes this abundantly clear when he says that he is not going to “dwell” on Edward Snowden’s actions because there is an ongoing investigation, an investigation he could end at any time with a Presidential pardon, and then proceeds to dwell on Snowden’s actions anyway.

Obama then proceeds to describe the nature of the review he has undertaken:

”Over the last six months, I created an outside Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to make recommendations for reform. I consulted with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by Congress. I’ve listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates, and industry leaders.”

Again this is all kabuki. His review panel was a collection of Administration insiders tasked with a looking primarily at a single NSA programs the one collecting telephone metadata and associated with this Obama’s personal spying on other heads of state, including supposedly close allies. The oversight board (PCLOB) was created, if I remember correctly out of a recommendation of the 9/11 commission. It was left unstaffed for years. But even staffed, it remains without power, independence, or any real oversight capability. It’s inclusion shows just how unserious Obama is about conducting a real review of the NSA. While I am sure Obama has gotten an earful from the foreign leaders he has personally spied on and complaints from corporations fearing loss of business, although these were probably not the telecoms involved in the metadata collection, what is remarkable is the lack of public input beyond unnamed “privacy advocates”.

The strains between acting as if he is critically evaluating something he whole heartedly supports produce some memorable flights into schizophrenia, like this one,

”during the course of our review, I have often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own government. And as President, a President who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.”


“even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance. And in the 1960s, government spied on civil rights leaders and critics of the Vietnam War.”

Yet this is the same President who used the Department of Homeland Security to organize the coordinated suppression of the OWS movement in numerous American cities. The kabuki demands he exhibit awareness of intelligence abuses. But his own inclinations and track record clearly demonstrate he is on the side of the abuses and the abusers. Obama is being breathtakingly cynical. This is all a kabuki exercise. He knows it and no longer cares if we know it. This is the President as dictator. The power resides with him. He will go through the motions but keep his police state in place and its powers intact.

So what are Obama’s reforms when all is said and done? There is a new Presidential directive to increase Executive oversight. Again misdirection. The problem is not oversight of out of control programs but the programs themselves. Oversight is meaningless kabuki. Nobody does it, not really, not the White House, not the courts, and certainly not the Congress.

Second, Obama will release some but not all of the secret legal opinions which provide legal justification for his surveillance programs. And in a blatant conflict of interest, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) will control and review what gets released. And he will be advised in this with regard to cases involving the FISA court by another toothless panel made up of Establishment insiders.

Third, Obama proposes unspecified reductions in the use in criminal cases of communications “incidentally” collected while targeting foreign individuals under Section 702. If this sounds empty, that’s because it is.

Fourth, some limits are to be placed on National Security Letters, letters used by the FBI to force surrender of information on individuals without a warrant and which prohibit disclosure by those providing information to the targets that they have been targeted. These kinds of warrantless warrants are inherently abused and lead to sloppy, abusive police work. This is, by my count, at least the third time that NSL reform has been promised. Again the problem is not in how NSLs are used but in the NSLs themselves.

Fifth, with regard to the Section 215 bulk collection of telephone metadata, the object of most of this supposed review, Obama has had to try to sell two diametrically opposed propositions. The first is that metadata collection is not intrusive, that is does not provide any real personal information. The second that it is crucial to track down terrorists because of all the information it does provide. Yet Obama could give no instance where this program has actually tracked down a terrorist, only one of the 9/11 hijackers where it might have, or given the Bush Administration’s overall leadership failure, not.

Here too Obama has no real solution. All he has is a “transition”, that is retention of the present system, until some unnamed and likely unworkable alternative involving “third party” retention (whatever that means) or the individual telecoms holding on to their data. The only give in Obama’s position is a reduction of three hops to two. A hop is the circle of contacts of a target. This likely reduces from a million to several thousand the number of contacts involved in a query. And these queries will be passed through the rubber stamp FISA court, except in case of emergencies.

Sixth, Obama promised to stop spying on the leaders of our close allies, but not their citizens. Or as Obama says,

“The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures.”

--even if we are, or if not us, then our friends at GCHQ. By omission, Obama also seemed to be promising that the US would not engage in economic spying, at least for economic reasons.

Seventh, Obama will appoint some figureheads to oversee this overall non-process and will name yet another toothless panel headed by John Podesta to conduct yet another review of “big data and privacy.”

This was one of Obama’s longer speeches. I think its length indicates the importance that he attaches to surveillance. The lack of real, specific content, and the failure to acknowledge Edward Snowden and the serious institutional problems he raised demonstrate that this is not about reform but damage control. Finally, the question not raised or addressed at all is why our political classes feel the need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a surveillance/police state aimed at everyone everywhere, including all Americans’ electronic communications, yet ostensibly directed against foreign terrorists, even though it has never caught one. Is it as simple as the totalitarian belief that information is power and total information equates to total power?

Obama’s speech can be found here:

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