December 12, 2013

What does the President think about NSA surveillance?

By Ben FitzGerald

The New Yorker has an interesting article that provides insight on the tensions inside government associated with the NSA’s surveillance programs (it was released prior to yesterday’s news about the NSA’s use of cookies and location data). The key question asked at the outset is ‘Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community?’

 I’ll leave it to the article to try and answer that question. However, it made me wonder what the President actually thinks about these programs. Here are three reference points, in chronological order, which may provide some insight: 

    1. When discussing cyber security with President Xi Jinping in June, the President offered the following perspective on norms for new cyber capabilities:
       

“In some ways, these are uncharted waters and you don’t have the kinds of protocols that have governed military issues, for example, and arms issues, where nations have a lot of experience in trying to negotiate what’s acceptable and what’s not.” 

  1. As quoted in the New Yorker article, at a press conference held in August the President said:

    “Keep in mind that, as a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about these programs. And, as President, I’ve taken steps to make sure they have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people. But, 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.”

  2. In an interview in October he explained that: 

    “…what we've seen over the last several years is [the NSA’s] capacities continue to develop and expand, and that's why I'm initiating now, a review to make sure that what they're able to do, doesn't necessarily mean what they should be doing."

This is exactly the right philosophical perspective to have on these issues. Unfortunately, these high level considerations are not at all evident in the Administration’s current response to the Snowden fall out nor do they point to clear solutions. Hopefully we hear more from the President directly on this issue and see this kind of thinking translate into practical action that positively affects policy and legislation in the short term.

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