x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Obama's assurances miss core concerns over NSA surveillance programme

None of the moves laid out by the US president included reforming the aspects that critics say violate the US constitution's guarantees of privacy. Taimur Khan reports from New York

NEW YORK // The US president, Barack Obama, sought to reassure his country, as well as his allies, with a public review and additional oversight of US national security surveillance programmes, but observers said the steps do little to address the core issues at the heart of public concern over the practices.

At a White House press conference on Friday, the US president tried to contain the increasingly divisive debate over the bulk collection of Americans' phone records and monitoring of online communications domestically and abroad by the National Security Agency (NSA), which were first revealed by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in June.

"Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Mr Obama said. "It's not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programmes. The American people need to have confidence in them as well.

"To others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people. Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that's necessary to protect our people and, in many cases, protect our allies."

Foreign leaders, especially in Europe, have repeatedly addressed the surveillance issue during meetings and conversations with Mr Obama.

Opinion polls show the president's popularity has fallen since the programmes became public, and 50 per cent of Americans oppose them. Both Democratic and Republican legislators have since pressed the administration to reform the practices, particularly the NSA's ability to access Americans' electronic communications without suspicion of a specific crime.

Mr Obama announced several steps that would provide greater accountability and "move the debate forward", allowing Americans to become "comfortable".

But none of the moves mentioned included limiting the scope of the surveillance efforts or reforming the aspects that critics say violate the US constitution's guarantees of privacy.

"He may be paying lip service to accountability and transparency, but the devil will be in the details when it comes to whether his proposals will be effective," the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, a digital privacy advocacy groups, said in a statement.

Mr Obama also said there was no evidence that the programmes' significant, and secret, powers had been "abused".

"I don't think the president's remarks addressed the core issues that are at the centre of the controversy. For example: is bulk collection of phone records an acceptable practice," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a non-partisan think tank.

"Is bulk collection a uniquely effective counter-terrorism tool? Intelligence officials say it is, but they have not been willing or able to demonstrate their position. The president did not either and so the dispute is largely as it was."

Citing the threat to US embassies in the past week, Mr Obama said that defending against terrorism was still his priority, but that the promised steps towards accountability could "jigger slightly" the balance between wide-ranging surveillance for national security and "the incremental encroachment on privacy".

Included in the steps are changes to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the administration has used to justify the collection of domestic telephone metadata, as well as creating the post of a civil liberties advocate within the NSA.

He also said he would work with Congress to change aspects of the metadata gathering programme in an "appropriate" way.

The proposal that could perhaps place the most significant check on the surveillance apparatus is the creation of an adversarial attorney within the secret court that approves much of the electronic spying and which many legal analysts have said acts as a rubber stamp.

The position would argue against the government's position in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's review process. But even this would have a limited scope, said national security law experts.

"This almost certainly would not be done across the board, but rather would involve appointment at the FISC's discretion in limited circumstances, probably those involving novel issues of constitutional or statutory interpretation," University of Texas law professor Robert Chesney wrote on the Lawfare website.

Mr Obama's steps for more oversight appeared to do little to mollify senators and congressmen.

Critics of the NSA programmes include the member of congress who helped author the original Patriot Act that was passed immediately after the September 11 attacks.

Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said that Mr Obama's steps only addressed what the government could do with information after it had been collected and did not limit its ability to gather vast amounts of communications.

Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon who has spearheaded the campaign to reform the surveillance programmes, also had reservations about the promised measures.

"Notably absent from president Obama's speech was any mention of closing the backdoor searches loophole that potentially allows for the warrantless searches of Americans' phone calls and emails under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," he said

"I believe that this provision requires significant reforms as well and I will continue to fight to close that loophole."