At 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.