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Insufficient reform on surveillance

Obama’s proposals for dealing with the excesses of espionage are little more than a gesture

On Friday Barack Obama announced a tentative and confused reform of the US government’s surveillance programs — which, though acknowledging that the alarm expressed in recent months is justified, falls a long way short of offering the serious guarantees necessary to ensure respect for liberties and the citizen’s right to privacy. It amounted only to a partial admission of the damage done, and a fudged response.

President Obama admitted that the NSA’s practice of massive collection and storage of telephone data within the United States — the most famous of the cyber-espionage programs revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden — lends itself to abuses that may constitute a violation of constitutional principle. But instead of eliminating the offending program immediately and definitively, the president promised to substitute it gradually, and this will only happen as and when the intelligence community, Congress and his own advisors come up with alternative options.

Meanwhile, Obama demanded that the intelligence agencies at least apply for judicial authorization before tapping into the contents of the calls that this program detects as being suspicious. This is no doubt a step in the right direction.

In his proposed reform Obama has disregarded other recommendations made by the advisory commission, such as those concerning the inclusion of independent members in the secret court that attends to the applications submitted by the intelligence services.

Above all, the president does not share the experts’ viewpoint, to the effect that this particular NSA program, besides being possibly illegal, is useless, because its contribution to the struggle against terrorism in recent years has been practically nil.

Sacrifice of liberty

On the contrary, Obama took the opportunity in his speech to vindicate the work of the NSA and to justify its methods. It is reasonable enough to accept the idea that modern democracies need to keep their methods of espionage up to date, and to pursue their enemies in the terrain in which they now move, including the internet. But a country such as the United States does not need to do this at the cost of sacrificing individual liberties. The argument that, if we fail to do this now, the public will demand explanations when the next terrorist attack takes place, is unworthy of the sort of leadership that Obama claims to represent. No real leader can publicly claim to act under the shadow of fear, or justify his decisions on the basis of catastrophe. Similar arguments were used by George W. Bush to defend the use of torture in secret prisons.

It is not the first time that Obama has responded to a problem with half-measures. But this time he was good enough to mention Snowden by name, breaking what was practically taboo in the higher spheres of Washington. This amounts to implicit recognition on the president’s part that his own speech was a response to the whistleblower, and that this slight advance in the direction of greater transparency is indeed a victory for the former NSA intelligence analyst.

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