Obama’s overdue reckoning on secrecy

June 7, 2013

President Barack Obama on the White House South Lawn in Washington, June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

All day Thursday, officials from across the political spectrum scrambled to explain reports in the Guardian and Washington Post of unprecedented government collection of phone and Internet records.

James R. Clapper, director of National Intelligence, issued a rare public statement confirming the existence of a classified phone program but said it did not involve the surveillance of American citizens. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee, asserted that the government needed the information to catch those who might become a terrorist.

Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the ranking member and vice chairman of the intelligence committee, described the program as “meritorious” because it allows government to collect information about “bad guys.”

On Friday, President Barack Obama defended the effort as well. Obama said that he and his aides had concluded that “modest encroachments on privacy” were “worth us doing” to protect the country.

“When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make,” the president said. “Number one, to keep the American people safe, and number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties.”

The president is trying to have it both ways. Two weeks ago, Obama called for a scaling back of the “war on terror.” On Friday, he defended the vast post-9/11 state surveillance system whose only justification is to wage it.

As al Qaeda weakens, surveillance should be decreased, not increased. Obama should be slowly dismantling the system, not regularizing and legitimizing it.

Dizzying rates of technological change have created unprecedented opportunities for government and corporate abuse. From drone strikes that make targeted killings politically easy to cell phones that automatically track our movements, technology has created torrents of data and unprecedented questions about how government and business should be allowed to use it.

Thursday’s disclosure should spark a widespread public debate. There is too little awareness of government and corporate data mining. And far too few protections against its excesses.

It should also pressure the Obama White House to become more transparent. The disclosure of the sweeping surveillance programs was a blow to an administration intent on making government seem capable, not oppressive. The disclosure of sweeping and secret data collection strengthened a growing narrative of government overreach.

This spring, critics from the left and right have questioned CIA drone strikes that killed American citizens, Internal Revenue Service agents targeting Tea Party activists and the FBI seizure of journalists’ phone and email records in leak investigations.

On Thursday night, Fox News commentators cited the NSA disclosure as proof of “government gone wild.” And in a rare moment of agreement, the New York Times’ editorial board criticized Obama as well.

In a blunt editorial, the Times dismissed Obama’s long-running argument that internal administration reviews – which he refuses to publicly describe – were adequate safeguards for covert drone strikes and surveillance programs. “The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue,” the paper said.

On Friday, Obama insisted that the surveillance programs strike a balance between security and privacy.  “My assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks,” Obama said.

After years of excessive secrecy regarding drone strikes, another assurance from Obama is simply not enough.

More information must be made public about the scope of the surveillance programs and their effectiveness. Claims that discussing the programs reveal counter-terrorism strategies are exaggerated. Terrorists already assume that the United States tracks their every phone call and online page view. Militant groups long ago developed detailed procedures to try to avoid detection.

In the United States, meanwhile, politicians use the false promise of total security as a justification for eroding privacy.  Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued on Thursday that there was no alternative to sweeping surveillance.

“If we don’t do it,” he said, “we’re crazy.”

There are some in Washington who see the stakes. For months, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and a handful of other surveillance skeptics in Congress, including Senators Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), have warned about the scope of the classified program while being barred by Senate rules from describing it in detail.

Their efforts should be lauded and the sprawling post-9/11 American surveillance effort should be re-examined. As Wyden argues, Congress should tighten the Patriot Act’s standards for which communications records can be obtained. Congress should also enact measures that create more transparency regarding surveillance.

We must develop clearer laws, standards and procedures for protecting our lives — from terrorist attacks but also from government overreach.

This column was updated and revised on June 7, 2013 at 11:55pm.

PHOTO (Insert A): A man types on a computer keyboard in this Feb. 28, 2013 illustration file picture. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

PHOTO (Insert B): Senators Ron Wyden and Dick Durbin in a combination image.  REUTERS/Files  


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

One of the issues, as I see it, is that the Obama administration (the Bush administration is guilty of this as well) has done a horrible job communicating to the American people how this data, this surveillance has protected them from terrorists and terrorism. They say that their actions have prevented terrorist acts, but they have given no examples of how and when the information was used successfully. I, for one, do not feel any safer since 9/11 and I imagine that many of my fellow Americans feel the same way. The reason is simple, I have no idea how my government is protecting me and my family. I have no insight into the levels of protection that they provide. The government needs to demonstrate now, after nearly a decade and a half of fighting the war on terror, why they continue to need these kinds of invasive powers and how they are protecting us. Simply telling us that they are working is not going to cut it anymore.

Posted by wastedclown | Report as abusive

By contrast, on the other side of the Atlantic:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22 813893

Some of us have seen this coming for some time…

http://techcrunch.com/2010/12/14/stallma n-cloud-computing-careless-computing/

http://www.slyman.org/blog/2011/11/loyal ty-discounts-threaten-privacy-and-market -efficiency/

(see for example, chapter 20)

Microsoft’s own statement on the matter:
“We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.” — Notice how the word “…voluntary…” gives them as much wiggle-room as they want in the rest of the statement. If the US government gave them little choice but to “participate”, Microsoft can still tell this lie with a straight face. A similar pattern of equivocation has been typical of other industry players caught in similar quandaries:
http://www.slyman.org/blog/2010/08/on-bl ackberry-communications-security/

I thought the Microsoft/ Skype deal made some sense but didn’t fit into Microsoft’s prior pattern of strategic acquisitions. It seemed to me like the sudden revelation of a new strategy. Did the NSA or any related agencies had any discussions with Microsoft prior to them closing this deal? Perhaps we’ll never know, but it’s very interesting how quickly Microsoft changed the topology of Skype’s network immediately after the acquisition, in such a way as to make surveillance much easier!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

It’s very naive to assume the government is always honest or cannot be influenced by special interests for their own monetary gain. It has been throughout it’s history and there is no reason to expect that to stop.

@Matehwslyman – I read your first link and have no idea what a pattern can show based on time, length of call and geographical location but not listening to what is said. And judge gave permission to do that? Wouldn’t that be like looking at an ant farm and watching when thousands ants meet two on two and touch antennae, move off and touch another two ants and so forth, without knowing what the two ants were actually “saying” to each other? The observer would see a lot of antennae touching and still not know how the ants were communicating. And this is being done on tax dollars? That’s a nifty job that doesn’t have to prove it accomplished anything. I wonder how much all that data transfer and combing is costing? And the ants doing the collecting probably don’t know what they are finding either? I wonder if anyone actually knows what they are finding? But that must mean oodles of billable hours to someone?

It’s quite possible that if random shootings, bombings and other mayhem are becoming so easy with technologically sophisticated devices, it might be wise to consider outlawing all the devices or issuing them with clear warnings that these items will be under constant monitoring by national intelligence agencies. They may not be all that intelligent? If they do that – and if anyone still gets injured because of their negligence in “oversight” than the injured should have the right to sue the agency for it’s negligence. If the Government wants nearly godlike powers of omniscient, they should take responsibility for that power the way any other business tends to be responsible for whatever happens on its own premises. Why not?

Otherwise we the people are “we the ant farm”.

@Mr. Rohde you might want to check some sentences: I do this too but I have no one to proof read, and my eyesight is poor.

“asserted the government needs the information to someone those who might become a terrorist.”

If you paid me enough I could find a “pattern” in that. Excuse me – it’s a meaningful anomaly. That’s a kind of pattern. Those people in the NSA could be looking for patterns, anomalies and variations until their eyes fall out, but it’s a living. What happens if they ever come across a code, in a pattern, in an anomaly, in a variation?

They get a bigger computer and a bigger staff!

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@paintcan: Most people follow routines (everyone does, to some extent). If you are trackable in any way, then you are inherently more likely to be associated with some criminal investigation by the mere application of probability theory by people who are too stupid or too uneducated to understand how to do so properly (that’s 99% of the people who have a university education, and 100% of the people who don’t); or by people who haven’t bothered to understand the ways in which their police-state dragnet can go wrong.

Examples of how that can happen:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7326 736.stm

http://www.jrrt.org.uk/sites/jrrt.org.uk  /files/documents/database-state.pdf

– See chapter on “Biometrics”, or the chapter entitled “Terror, Justice and Freedom”.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

p.s. About following routines. What that means is, if someone knows the general pattern of your movements, they can predict your movements too. In a country like Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan (sorry to people in these countries who may feel the association unjustified); it’s not hard to see how this could mean trouble!
In our own countries… Who’s going to watch the watchers? As an example of one of the more “benign” things that can go wrong: CCTV operators using cameras to stare at attractive women and zoom in on bits they want to see more of, from a high/low hidden vantage-point (CCTV operators have got into trouble more than once for this kind of thing, but let’s face it, most CCTV operators are under no scrutiny or regulation whatsoever). I’d be absolutely amazed if that pattern of curious “investigation” was never followed by the other “watchers” in our society…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

We can not trust the president or government or the courts to act independently in the best interest of Americans. The best we can do is to force the three branches of government to collaborate and play off each other and even that will often fall short.

A case in point: the complicity of international Bankers & credit ratings agencies in the economic in the economic collapse of 2007. Look at the scale of the crime (and we all know that there was some vastly illegal and vastly profitable activity going on there) versus the pace, scale and scope of just punishment and the pathetic measures put in place to prevent that from ever happening again.

All three branches of government chose to act in the best interest of some powerful people and powerful corporations rather than in the interest of justice and citizens.

That demonstrates why we absolutely must have a discussion about privacy as it relates to technology and security. We must lay down some basic premises and cast them in concrete. In spite of our best efforts, our government might still succumb to corruption, but it’s the best we can do. We must try.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

Why worry about government data mining?

At least they won’t sell our credit card data.

Will they?

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

“Terrorists already assume that the United States tracks their every phone call and online page view. Militant groups long ago developed detailed procedures to try to avoid detection.”

It has long been my belief that government “secrecy” cannot be maintained for very long. Our enemies learn the secrets quickly; the citizenry, later.

Posted by unionwv | Report as abusive

@Mathewslyman – Then they will be wasting their time on a lot of very routine people like me. My days are so similar, since my business went bust, I keep a calendar just to remember what day it is. If they preoccupy their days with the minutia of every person’s life on the planet then they have gone insane. Governments can go insane. They have become seriously obsessive/compulsive.

I haven’t read all your links yet but what you imply is the government would like very routine patterns and look for anomalies. How a judge allowed for blanket trolling violates the rights of all those they have no right to spy on for probable cause. The NSA puts all citizens under suspicion, and then invades their privacy for no probably cause. And the government could even be the instigator of the crimes or the cause of the reactions that may be attacking the citizenry. They can be a bunch of crooks and are desperate to make sure no one ever has a chance to separate them from their grip on power and the road the big money. One doesn’t have to have boundless, uncritical or blind faith in the government. The Constitution didn’t but that’s what Bush and even Obama seem to want us to accept. That is your point too but with a touch of paranoia. And people should remember that whatever powers the government assumes can be abused even more by the next and possibly far more insane governments of the future. But as some comments say – they don’t trust any aspect of the government, or the business world so what hope have they that there is a solution? I haven’t met any of the big shots so I can get paranoid too.

But it clearly means the 4th Amendment has been stretched to the point of being meaningless. I certainly don’t see what protections it provides now. And what has already bothered me about the last ten years is that the government could hand over this information – or extracts and analysis of it – to special business interests who want to stay way up on the competition. Those interests could bribe officials for that information and that is an even greater possible invasion of one’s privacy by all and sundry. But it has been the stuff of spy novels and TV shows for decades that Ma Bell could spy when it liked or the CIA could use back rooms to tap into the networks when they liked. I’m not afraid of it because I have no activities worth sneezing at anymore.

The Congress or even a group of citizens will no doubt be suing the White House. They have that right. This is a matter that should be taken before a court, and if necessary, to the SC. Obama may be playing a game of reverse psychology, you know?

BTW – in the last two days there have been at least two more random shootings among civilians noted on my home page. The NSA will have a nervous breakdown if that goes on for too long and there is really nothing they can do about it but cling to the false comfort of statistics and technological fixes that don’t really fix anything. It could very well be that modern society has been screwed by it’s own high tech devices? In other words, mere mortals can’t handle “omniscience” without seriously loosing their minds.

But I do like this computer. It’s become an addiction, actually. It’s been a lot more fun than just passively listening to “big blather” on the TV and mooing or bleating in unison. And I am finally learning how the write.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Obama has been lying to us for years telling us how transparent he was. Now we’ve had Fast & Furious, Benghazi, the criminal conspiracy at the IRS, the Justice Dept spying on the press, and now we’ve found out that Obama has been operating the most massive police state spying operation in all of history while telling us he would never do such a thing. Obama is Big Brother. He has been spying on every cell phone call, every email, every online account, everyhing. And based on what he did at the IRS you can bet he is digging out information he can use against his political opposition. We are living in a police state beyond our imagining, and Obama and his corrupt regime are running it. Our Constitution and our freedom are hanging by a thread. Obama said he would transform our nation. We just didn’t know it would be into an authoritarian police state.

Posted by valwayne | Report as abusive

Obama has been lying to us for years telling us how transparent he was. Now we’ve had Fast & Furious, Benghazi, the criminal conspiracy at the IRS, the Justice Dept spying on the press, and now we’ve found out that Obama has been operating the most massive police state spying operation in all of history while telling us he would never do such a thing. Obama is Big Brother. He has been spying on every cell phone call, every email, every online account, everyhing. And based on what he did at the IRS you can bet he is digging out information he can use against his political opposition. We are living in a police state beyond our imagining, and Obama and his corrupt regime are running it. Our Constitution and our freedom are hanging by a thread. Obama said he would transform our nation. We just didn’t know it would be into an authoritarian police state.

Posted by valwayne | Report as abusive

@mathewslyman – To depart from the tread at Mr. Rohde;s sufferance: Why not just shut down the website instead of arresting the watchers? Why waste so much time catching the audience and just shut down the show? It costs fortunes to prosecute victimless crime and that man – or any of the online voyeurs are really not actually engaging in anything that is real. The producers of the films are and they are the ones making the money.

A commissioner in this village district is in jail for doing the same thing and I found out he was a victim of child molestation by his father, so I heard. But not one article ever said the site itself was arrested.

There was a line in the last episode of the series, Alistaire Maupin’s “Tales of the City” where the man who was working with a little girl called her a star in the child porn world and even said that her parents put her up to it because she was able to make more money than they could.

People must like scandals and horror stories, and exercises in self righteous indignation more than good sense.

What I’ve never understood about the child sex crimes business and prosecuting the customers? What if the child sex was drawn with hyper-realistic animation and no children were involved at all? Would that still be a crime? People can have kinky and disgusting tastes but is that any reason to prosecute them?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee, asserted that the government needed the information to catch those who “might become” a “terrorist”. Sound like McCathyism 2.0

Posted by tcmuench | Report as abusive

this delusionally narcissistic windbag is wearing thin on an intelligent observer. he constantly contradicts his own prior statements, but in this deluded mind of a narcissist, none of that represents a conflict with evident truth. only fawning acolytes and the great unwashed continue to support this annoying windbag. for the rest of us, the constant lying, the insular paranoia, the dictatorial arrogance. enough……

Posted by subframer1 | Report as abusive

Obama said it himself. Allowing the federal government the opportunity to “mine data” to this extent requires TRUST.

Posted by TPAINE3 | Report as abusive

The government should never have access to everyones’ phone records! After the recent revelation of the IRS scandal – even if you believe the bogus claim by Obama that it was just done by “low-level employees” – it is clear that the government illegally uses private records for political purposes. You can easily see some “low-level” NSA employees searching your records – or a political candidate’s records – and finding out who has placed called to an abortion clinic number, to a psychiatrist, or TO A TEA PARTY NUMBER. And of course with the precedent of Filegate, where Hillary illegally ordered and received 941 confidential FBI files on political opponents in 1994, you can imagine that non-“low level” employees can use these records – once the data is in the Feds hands – for political extortion, smearing, and repression.

Now we need to also know if some “low level employee” at the NSA was compiling lists of who was calling Tea Party phone numbers – from the vast telephone calling records the government now has obtained. Has a “low-level employee” cross-referenced calls from politically targeted politicians or Tea Party organizers to their psychiatrists, abortion clinics, or sex chat lines? Where does this government intrusion into all our records end? This is craziness – even if one believes the baloney that this was just “low-level employees” not following rules – that could happen to the phone records also and the data could be used to extort or squelch people based on political motives. I could easily see a “low level employee” telling a potential candidate “you run and I’ll expose your calls to your mistress and the abortion clinic”.

Posted by Mickelenische | Report as abusive

Who is the biggest liar in the Obama White House? So many choices.

Posted by ddfox | Report as abusive

This is a question of trust.

Do we trust our Federal government to have our best interests at heart?

If the only issue was the NSA collecting phone call and Internet traffic records on people in the name of preventing terrorists attacks that would be one thing.

But the very same government that is collecting all of these records on us citizens is also:

1) Spying on reporters
2) Indicting a reporter of a news organization (Fox News) that is not known to be a supplicant of the administration
3) Having the IRS discriminate against tax exempt organizations whose views are at odds with those of the party in power.

I am perfectly willing to let a government that I trust monitor my phone calls and my emails to make sure that I not a terrorist. I am not willing to let a government that has engaged in discriminatory and disparate behavior against opposition political parties have these powers.

So the IRS and AP scandals make me less willing to trust the government to keep me safe. This is not a good thing and it needs to be fixed.

Posted by Berndh | Report as abusive

We have this vast security apparatus to protect us by sucking up all manner of information, yet couldn’t identify the Boston bombers, even when we *had* advanced warnings. That’s comforting.

This from the people who run Amtrak.

Posted by LDRider | Report as abusive

@Mathewslyman – Your last link to the book about Security Engineering will take some time to get through.

But I can’t help thinking while starting to read it that the government and the NSA may have lost their minds.

They are overwhelmed with the repercussions of murderous wars or very questionable integrity just as their own integrity may be a distant memory. The constant threat of physical attack on it’s own populations and the nightmarish experiences here and abroad during the last ten years can never be ignored. They are flooded with special interest money with a variety of different and conflicting aims, their decision making processes, that have no resemblance to the much slower social environment and decision making processes of the 18th century when the Constitution was written, and the vastly different social and moral landscape of the early 21st century may have completely undone heir ability to think rationally at all? The speed with which they must review far more information could also be working to undermine their ability to thoroughly understand any of it properly and they are being pushed by events and “data” more than they can ever master any it.

I have long thought that even the stuff I read on the net is so voluminous and so difficult to verify, that as an attempt to make it resemble the library of physical books I have been collecting since I was in High School, I save all the articles I read (but hardly ever look back at them) as a kind of diary that I hope makes what I have learned from it somehow – more “real”. I always feel a little strange and obsessive doing that but it takes very little time. I was new to the internet and didn’t know how to search, and also knew that sites can be very short lived on the Net. I crop them and shrink them and store them in an archive, and I hope it preserves them like books preserve written words that can’t be altered the way computer texts can be easily altered. After all, what good would history texts be if they could be written every week to reflect the author’s changing thoughts or moods or even the desire of those described for a more flattering or biased account? The Internet is, in many ways, a digital hallucination.

The people who work for the NSA may be paranoid, even delusional, very greedy, very competitive and aggressive, have terrible consciences, and are eager to keep their jobs in a “high speed exciting world of high technology and state of the art surveillance” or in other words, James Bond on steroids and mood stabilizers.

To put it bluntly: the Congress and the President and maybe even the Supreme Court – (but, I think they still have the more controlled and leisurely pace to work at) – could all be going clinically INSANE.

There is an old expression from ancient Greece. “Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad”.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

“of” very questionable integrity.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

“….uphold the Constitution….” – really? Obama appears to believe, as Bush did, that the Constitution is nothing more than a piece of paper and is intent on burning that paper as quickly as possible.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive