By Christopher Eutaw,
On January 17, President Obama delivered a speech in which he outlined future changes to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs.
The president spent a lot of time discussing transparency and accountability. He even said that “for our intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, we must maintain the trust of the American people and people around the world.”
Obama then outlined the changes he wishes to make, I suppose with the faint hope of selling Americans on a shiny new future that’s totally abuse free.
Forgive me if I seem a little skeptical (Obama would plant a camera in your bathroom if he could). The reality is that it’s impossible to have both robust security and adequate transparency. And because of that, we’ve finally come to the “security crossroads.”
Obama knows it, and he’s planning accordingly.
If he doesn’t seem worried, it’s because he has plenty of experience hawking transparency to the American people (just look at his campaign leading up to the 2008 election).
But no matter what Obama says, at the end of the day, NSA transparency and security accountability are pipe dreams.
There are a few indisputable reasons why we’ll never see greater transparency from the NSA – or any other spy agency, for that matter. And in fact, Obama outlined them in the exact same speech in which he proposed surveillance reforms.
“There is an inevitable bias,” Obama said, “not only within the intelligence community, but among all of us who are responsible for national security, to collect more information about the world, not less.”
Now on some level, this makes sense. More data likely means greater security, right? But in the context of egregious privacy violations and civil liberties abuses, Obama said that it’s “inevitable” that intelligence agencies will continue to collect more and more data. Think about that.
What’s more, the president also said, “Intelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy, which makes their work less subject to public debate.”
So in a speech meant to further the debate about surveillance transparency, Obama said that such programs aren’t really subject to public debate.
And as it turns out, he’s not alone in thinking as much.
Just four days after Obama’s NSA speech, a Defense Department panel issued a report recommending increased U.S. surveillance capabilities for nuclear proliferation. It even pointed to the NSA’s counterterrorism program as a model!
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but something tells me that the Department’s timing isn’t a coincidence.
Meanwhile, the report recommends the use of highly invasive methods similar to those employed by the NSA, including “exploiting the cyber domain.” More specifically, it confirms that “many of the new technology advances in data exfiltration, covert implantation, etc… hold promise for successful… collection and exploitation.”
But the worst part is that the report “doesn’t mention privacy,” says Steven Aftergood, a noted proponent of government openness and the head of the Project on Government Secrecy. “It’s not even on their radar.”
Let’s face it: While the public is opposed to the NSA’s invasive tactics, the federal government is clearly not ready to relinquish control.
Obama may be giving transparency the hard sell, but at this point his talk is cheap. The truth is that the government loves big data collection, and the Defense Department’s report is just the latest example. Barring some miraculous world peace agreement, the days of less invasive and more transparent surveillance are just a fantasy.
In Pursuit of the Truth,