3 Lessons From the NSA Telephone Dragnet Obama Plans to End


White House

The New York Times reports that the Obama administration plans to end the National Security Agency's mass collection of innocent Americans' telephone records, a program that has generated concern and criticism across the political spectrum since it was revealed last summer by newspaper articles based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Under legislation the administration plans to propose, the Times says, records would be retained by phone companies for the usual 18 months, as opposed to the five years of metadata stored by the NSA. The government could obtain information about particular targets and their contacts through individualized court orders rather than the blanket orders that purport to authorize the NSA's current database. The legislation "would also include a provision clarifying whether Section 215 of the Patriot Act, due to expire next year unless Congress reauthorizes it, may in the future be legitimately interpreted as allowing bulk collection of telephone data." While these reforms are welcome, they should not blind us to three important lessons from this episode:

Everything was fine as long as it was secret. President Obama was perfectly comfortable with the NSA's database until the general public learned that it existed. Even then, he described the routine collection of everyone's phone records—information that can be highly revealing—as a a "modest encroachment" that "the American people should feel comfortable about." Only when it became clear that large numbers of Americans were not in fact comfortable with this massive dragnet did Obama begin to express concern about the privacy threat it poses. The members of the Senate and House intelligence committees also knew about the phone record database before the rest of us did. With a few exceptions, such as Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), they were not troubled by it either. "This is just metadata," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters after the story broke. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court secretly certified the program as consistent with both the PATRIOT Act (a point disputed by that law's chief author) and the Fourth Amendment. Obama, back when he was defending the phone record dragnet instead of calling for its abolition, argued that all three branches of government had signed off on it—a disconcerting reminder of how national security claims can nullify checks and balances.  

The program was essential until it became dispensable. The Obama administration and its defenders in Congress claimed the NSA's mass collection of telephone metadata was essential to national security, but they could not cite a single example of a terrorist attack thwarted by the program. By agreeing to end the database, Obama has conceded that all the talk about how vital it was in protecting us from terrorists was nothing but bluster—a point to keep in mind the next time the government says civil liberties must be sacrificed in the name of safety.

Whistleblowing is a crime. None of the reforms Obama is now advocating would have happened without Snowden's leaks. Neither would the broader debate about privacy and national security that Obama claims to welcome. But according to Obama, the proper reward for this public service is a lengthy prison term. Something is wrong when the man who reveals the government's disturbing surveillance activities is treated as a criminal while the man who endorsed those abuses poses as a privacy advocate.

NEXT: Bitcoin Branded Ecstasy Exists

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.

  1. The NSA hasn’t been defunded and dissolved. This doesn’t go far enough.

  2. None of the reforms Obama is now advocating would have happened without Snowden’s leaks.

    Yes, but if he had only expressed his concerns privately to the people who are currently resisting any changes whatsoever.

  3. Under legislation the administration plans to propose ignore


  4. In other news from the Terror Desk:

    Four New York-area men were arrested Monday after a BASE jumping stunt from atop One World Trade Center in September, police said.

    James Brady, Kyle Hartwell, Marko Markovich, and Andrew Rossig have been charged with burglary, reckless endangerment and jumping from a structure, according to a statement issued by NYPD Commissioner William Bratton.

    “These men violated the law and placed themselves, as well as others, in danger,” Bratton said. “These arrests should send a message to anyone thinking about misusing a landmark this way.”


    The men snuck into the area through a hole in a fence, said Parlatore.

    “One of the first things my client said to me was that how surprised he was at how there was no security whatsoever — how easy it was to just walk right up there in something that the mayor has just recently described as the No. 1 terrorist target in the world,” he said.

    Misusing a Landmark? Off with their heads!

  5. “The Port Authority joins the NYPD in condemning this lawless and selfish act that clearly endangered the public,” Port Authority Chief Security Officer Joseph Dunne said in a statement. “It should be clear that the PAPD and NYPD will go to any length to bring those who defile the WTC site to justice.”

    The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns the trade center site.

    Good grief.

    1. those who defile the WTC site

      defile ? it’s sacred ground.

      Good Grief, indeed.

  6. From what I’m reading, the “plan” would ease the massive dragnet, but would give the NSA the authority to access new types of data it perviously hadn’t been allowed to collect (not that they hadn’t been collecting everything they could possibly Hoover up, but this would make it all legal and shit).

    1. …data it perviously hadn’t been allowed to collect…

      That’s a John level typo. Perfect.

      1. It was, like, totally intentional and shit. Yeah.

  7. So a rubber-stamping court is going to stop the NSA from getting the meta-data it wants. Yeah, go ahead and pull the other one.

    This is just smoke ‘n’ mirrors – and doesn’t effectively change anything.

  8. doesn’t effectively change anything.

    I suspect there are some Easter Eggs in it which will expand the scope of government power.

    1. of course. Damn I’m feeling cynical today.

    2. (see my comment above)

  9. Confident prediction:

    (1) All the data that’s being collected and stored now will continue to be collected and stored. It will just be kept (mwetaphorically) in a box with a different label on it. Either the ISPs, etc. will be required to keep it, or a new government agency will get to keep it. If the latter, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised that they keep it on exactly the same servers and drives they do now.

    (2) The NSA will have to go through a new, secret bureaucratic process to access the re-labeled box of data. Their access will be functionally identical.

    Naturally, this will be touted as a huge civil rights victory, with the President being lauded for taking a Bold Stand.

  10. So now that that’s all cleared up, I suppose we can ask Obama to offer Snowden full immunity so he can come home, right?

  11. I’m expecting Feinstein, et al, to attack Obama for gutting this vitally important, not-at-all-intrusive, completely Constitutional and legal and over-sighted and transparent program. I mean, it would look kinda suspiciously hypocritical for these people to have been defending the program all along but to suddenly change their tune the exact same second Obama changes his, wouldn’t it?

    1. Don’t we want our officials to be hypocritical? They’re supposed to convey our opinions, not their own.

  12. Only when it became clear that large numbers of Americans were not in fact comfortable with this massive dragnet did Obama begin to express concern

    But isn’t that the way representative gov’t is supposed to work?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.