A surveillance state


Obama’s speech on the NSA Friday followed a very predictable path. He referenced notable moments in U.S. history to frame the topic of surveillance, he made arguments regarding national security in defense of the NSA, he made qualified announcements about potential reforms, and he even pointed a finger at those meanies in Russia and China, who most certainly hate freedom and privacy more than the U.S. government.  Rest assured, for it was straight out of the president’s handbook.

To be sure, Obama put forward a number of substantial reforms on Friday. They are the things of realpolitik: fiddling with the details of surveillance procedures in response to public concern, without enacting any significant structural shifts to the government’s hoarding complex when it comes to data. Indeed, Obama himself said, “those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties. The challenge is getting the details right, and that’s not simple.”

This was the crux of Obama’s speech today: an argument for fiddling with details to calm both outraged privacy advocates and national security defenders. But Obama’s focus on “details” is important: without scrutiny, debates over the details of NSA reform could distract us from the fact that our state of surveillance is going no where.

For a detailed report on Obama’s suggested reforms, see here. Let’s go ahead and put the president’s words and promised reforms into some context. Essentially, Obama has vowed to keep surveillance practices largely in tact, while improving oversight. He stated that more transparency would be demanded of the shadowy practice, including possibly declassifying orders and demanding greater transparency for national security letters. There will be more panels, and there will be more reviews.

While sources close to the White House had suggested before the president’s speech that he would not address the moving of bulk metadata collections out of government hands, Obama gestured towards this possibility. The president’s remarks on this point were importantly qualified. “I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists.”  The “currently exists” statement is an assertion that the phone data hoarding will certainly continue, but with some tweaks.

In regards to moving these vast databases into the hands of private entities, Obama noted that “more work needs to be done to determine exactly how this system might work.” However, this is no end to sprawling mass surveillance, just a potential shift in which arm of the corporate-government surveillance nexus holds our communications data. It would not be an insignificant move, but it also would not even marginally dismantle the surveillance state the U.S. is becoming.

Obama made two related reforms effective Friday: “Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.”

As ever, we should remain critical about what sort of “judicial finding” counts as sufficient (and how shadowy such a process might be) as well as what gets to count as a “true emergency” in this era of unbounded, unending war. It’s impossible to know at this point if these reforms will do any work in securing privacy, or if the president is just trying to save face in the midst of public outrage.

As well as reiterating anger at whistle-blower Ed Snowden for prompting “sensational” stories, Obama couched his reform announcements in rhetorical patriotism. “No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account,” Obama said. Go America.

I wouldn’t exactly claim that Obama is attempting to use the NSA for MORE than national security—I wouldn’t say the government is seeking complete and total control over the U.S. citizens.  Unlike some conspiracy theorists, I believe that surveillance programs are absolutely for the sole protection of American citizens, but what they’re designed for and what they’ll be used for are two different things.  The president cannot control how they’ll be used in the future.  These programs have a huge potential for abuse.

“The reforms I’m proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected,” said the president. And therein lies the problem. As he said in December, the administration wants to give the public “greater assurance,” “greater confidence” in the wake of a historic scandal. It’s a game of political maneuvering, that asks for trust without structurally shifting the techniques of government that rightfully created distrust when revealed. The president performed a subtle rhetorical dance today in attempt to gain our “confidence”; he said as much himself. And in a certain way, he HAS gained my confidence: my confidence in the fact that we will remain always-already surveyed and that the state wouldn’t have it any other way.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Parkway School District.