Obama's Defense of NSA Surveillance Doesn't Hold Up

Whitehouse.govWhitehouse.govAt a press conference this afternoon, President Obama was asked about the efficacy of the National Security Agency’s bulk phone records surveillance programs. Noting that while defending the programs in a recent court case the government did not specify any instance in which the program stopped an imminent attack, Mark Felsenthal of Reuters asked the president if he could cite specific examples of attacks stopped by the program, and whether Obama believed that the data collection, in its current form, was “useful to national security.”

President Obama’s response was revealing,as much for what he said as for what he didn’t. The president did not cite any instance in which the bulk phone records collection program, which gathers information about calls made by hundreds of millions of Americans, had stopped an imminent attack. The omission suggests there may not be any such example to cite.

Yet the president defended the surveillance program as vital to national security anyway. The program, he said, has “allowed the NSA to be confident in pursuing various investigations of terrorist threats.”

What’s more, he argued, despite controversy over the program and related surveillance operations, there have been no allegations of abuse. “It's important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data.” Obama vouched for the program, saying, “I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around.”

That’s just not true. The very nature of the bulk phone metadata collection program in question is domestic surveillance—a form of snooping around that inevitably sweeps up data on American citizens.

There have also been documented instances of abuse. In August, the NSA confirmed to Bloomberg News that several cases of willful noncompliance with the agency’s own guidelines had been discovered. Roughly a dozen instances of improper behavior were discovered.

Other reports have found that NSA employees on occasion used agency surveillance tools to spy on lovers. The agency, along with other intelligence organizations, also spent millions of dollars studying and spying on online video game worlds to no productive counterterrorism result.  In August, Reuters reported that data created by NSA intercepts justified as counter-terror measures was in fact being used to facilitate drug crime investigations by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

A strict focus on these individual reports, however, misses the larger point, which is that the very existence of the NSA’s bulk data collection program is itself abusive, regardless of specific policy infringements. That was the point made by Richard Leon, the District Judge who earlier this week issued a ruling suggesting that the program was unconstitutional. But while Obama suggested that he might be willing to tweak the NSA’s methods, he does not appear to be willing to rethink the program’s fundamental surveillance goals. “The question we're going to have to ask is can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that in fact the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing,” he said, adding later that “there may be another way of skinning the cat.” Translation: If he reforms the program, it might feel slightly different, but it will actually be just the same. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • John Thacker||

    I also liked the part where Obama blew off Ed Henry's question by saying that he couldn't possibly be responsible for any comments of his own DNI, James Clapper, who serves at the pleasure of the President and could be fired at any time.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I did like that the reporter at least tried to press the issue by pointing out that he was still employed.

  • ||

    There goes that reporter's "access" to the president...

  • Hugh Akston||

    He'll be too busy handling an IRS audit to worry about that.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Time for another round of Snowden revelations to be released.

  • fish||

    I don't know Fist....I'm not sure I can get a boner so soon after the last round of Snowden porn.

    Between this and the daily Obamacare fuckup updates this really is turning out to be the best Christmas ever!

  • Lord at War||

    fish-

    If your schadenboner lasts for more than four hours, I recommend watching "Girls".

  • Brad W||

    “there may be another way of skinning the cat.”

    Hey, American people... Guess who the cat is?

  • ||

    Please let me follow the nanny. She doesn't shave her legs. Women like that are so... hot.

  • ||

    The name Shitweasel has never been more appropriate. I forget, who said " Obama is so slick he makes an eel look like sandpaper."? Krauthammer? Sowell? I forget now.

    *Sigh*
    I will say it again. Government fears no foreign power like they fear their own people. The NSA spying has nothing to do with terrorism and they are not going to stop doing it.

  • Don'tTreadOnMe||

    ^^THIS!

  • Medical Physics Guy||

    Strengthen The Presidency!

    /NYtimesdouchebag

  • Rich||

    The program, he said, has “allowed the NSA to be confident in pursuing various investigations of terrorist threats.”

    If that's the purpose of the program, wouldn't it be a lot cheaper just to give everyone in NSA a gold star?

  • R C Dean||

    No shit. We are running a multi-billion dollar program that is alienating allies, violating rights, and doing real damage to US businesses, all so the NSA employees can (through some twisted mental process) feel better about their work?

  • OneOut||

    "“It's important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data.” Obama vouched for the program, saying, “I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around.”

    I bet Justice John Roberts would agree with this statement 100%.

  • GroundTruth||

    He's going to be the big wild card when this gets to SCOTUS. So much for being able to predict how any justice will rule based on who appointed him.

    Roberts needs to stop worrying about holding the country together and not upsetting precedent, and get on with upholding the written constitution.

  • HarryUSA||

    He's just a salesman for a big industry that takes our money and produces little for it.

  • Len Bias||

    His defense of pretty much everything doesn't hold up.

  • DH||

    I don't know, he makes a pretty strong case for why men shouldn't wear "skinny jeans"!

  • Don'tTreadOnMe||

    What are they gonna do with that huge server farm if they can't use it to spy on us? Healthcare.gov? Not sure which purpose is worse…..

  • Copernicus||

    ' Mark Felsenthal of Reuters asked the president if he could cite specific examples of attacks stopped by the program, and whether Obama believed that the data collection, in its current form, was “useful to national security.”'

    Obama: Ok, let me make this perfectly clear. For me to cite a specific example would require that I be engaged in my job as President. You all know I am busy rigging my golf handicap, predicting Sporting events, grab-assing blond foreign leaders, and working on my tan (some people think I'm too white). So, that is a fucking trick question. HA! Burn!....

  • PH2050||

    The agency, along with other intelligence organizations, also spent millions of dollars studying and spying on online video game worlds to no productive counterterrorism result.

    Considering some of the anti-government statements I've seen posted in World of Warcraft's trade chat (many related to marijuana legalization), I'm not surprised.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    They did, however, gain for the taxpayers a Vorpal Sword, a Scrying Glass, and a +3 axe.

  • pan fried wylie||

    What happened to the 30k gold is still under investigation.

  • SusanM||

    That explains all the jerks begging for gold in trae chat.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    Wait. Are you telling me.......

    ......Obama lied???!!!

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!11!!!!!

  • DenverJay||

    No, Obama did not lie, and Winston Smith is busy editing any lies you may find in old archives, so that they now reflect the truth.

  • pan fried wylie||

    What’s more, he argued, despite controversy over the program and related surveillance operations, there have been no allegations of abuse. “It's important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data.”

    The program IS the abuse.

  • Ann N||

    I dunno, in an age of rampant corruption and diversity its not suspicious to have zero legit offenses and zero mere allegations?

    I think a person with that kind of police record would be suspected of being a spy. No crimes, no record, not even a false allegation? Not even a speeding ticket? yeah right.

    and that's the 1950's America 'leave it to beaver' NSA we got. we are really lucky. Zero offenses means we can really trust them.

    It makes me feel like Obama is leveling with me and looking me square in the eye.

  • SQRLSY One||

    “…asked the president if he could cite specific examples of attacks stopped by the program…” That’s not the right question, dumb-ass, the right questions are, “How many gruesome episodes of pot smoking, un-licensed butt-scratching, or disbelief in globabble warmerering, have been prevented by this program? And PLEASE tell me just HOW MUCH our economy was stimulated by the NSA’s employment of more and more spies, and the buying of more and more computer (spy) systems?”

  • SQRLSY One||

    Totally OT… That’s “Off Topic”, not “Operating Thetan”, now, for you Scientologists out there… See http://www.newsdaily.com/artic.....potted-owl … Government Almighty is no longer content to just pick winners and losers in the energy and other markets, it is now picking winners and losers in the evolutionary processes of nature! One bird sub-species v/s another are duking it out? Government Almighty just MUST spend “…$3.5 million over six years” to pick the winner! I am glad that Guv-Mint Almighty was not around to help defend Neanderthals against our ancestors… Although you never know, I would be willing to bet that Neanderthals would have more sense than our politicians…

  • SQRLSY One||

    "If you like the kinds of birds you've got in your neck of the woods, you can keep them."

  • ArbutusJoe||

    "I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around."

    Or...if you like your privacy, you can keep it.

  • alinaresquivel||

    Start working at home with GOOGLE!YAHOO. ABCNEWS AND MORE GLOBAL SITES... It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,
    www.cash46.com

  • Reasonable Ann||

    It's about diplomatic manipulation, social control, economic spying and mostly, power. http://www.washingtonsblog.com.....power.html

  • SuperOBD SKP-100||

    That's interesting.

  • MaggieMansfielddva||

    uptil I saw the draft for $8854, I accept ...that...my brother was like realie earning money in their spare time online.. there brothers friend haz done this 4 only about seven months and recently paid for the depts on there home and bought a gorgeous volvo. see page
    ===========================
    WWW.HomeProfitSystem.COM/tec30
    ===========================

  • kenezen||

    The defining violation of our citizen's rights to privacy is use of General Warrants. Without General warrants raping of citizens privacy could not happen.

    In the Colonies King George passed "Writs of Assistance." This allowed British Soldiers to enter any home or business and violate any privacy as they searched.

    James Madison made absolutely sure to include very specific language outlawing "General Warrants" for Search and Seizure.

    General Warrants are now being used by our government to collect by NSA every bit of private information on its citizens. Our phones, PC's, Our Cars, even smart TV's are all monitored. Our conversations within our own homes and cars can be recorded without our knowledge. This is all possible by using "General Warrants". As late as 1967 in "Katz vs The United States" the Supreme Court upheld our right of privacy!

    In World War II our country fought two nations at the same time. Two powerful nations of Germany and Japan Without Spying on our own people!

    General Warrants must be disallowed immediately. Without that, we risk losing our democracy with political upheaval that is crippling our Country! Look at what our central Government has done during these last two Presidencies! To preserve our Way of life for our Children, let's demand that General Warrants, forbidden by our Constitution, be revoked and all active Warrants be eliminated.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement