Scott Wilson and Zachary Goldfarb lay out the proposals from the president’s speech on Friday:
Obama said he intends to work with Congress on proposals that would add an adversarial voice – effectively one advocating privacy rights – to the secret proceedings before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Several Democratic senators have proposed such a measure. In addition, Obama said that he intends to work on ways to tighten one provision of the Patriot Act – known as Section 215 – that gives the government broader authority to obtain business phone data records. He announced the creation of a panel of outsiders – former intelligence officials, civil liberty and privacy advocates, and others – to assess the programs and suggest changes by the end of the year.
Tomasky thinks the administration is going in the right direction:
[Obama] took a couple steps away from the imperial presidency. I think that’s the first time since the presidency became imperial – after World War II, more or less – such a thing has happened. And Obama was, as he claimed Friday, headed down this course before the Snowden leaks. Those began on June 5. But on May 23, he gave a speech at the National Defense University in which he foreshadowed the moves he just announced. Combine all this with John Kerry’s recent announcement that we have a plan for ending drone strikes in Pakistan, and you might have thought liberals would be cheering. I suppose some liberals are. I am. But not civil libertarians. With them, it’s all or nothing. If you’re not signed on to the whole program, you might as well be Joe McCarthy.
Conor vehemently disagrees:
Obama is still lying, obfuscating and misleading the American people. In doing so, he is preventing representative democracy from functioning as well as it might. With the stakes so high, and his performance so dubious in so many places, Friday’s speech has got to be one of the low points of his presidency.
[T]he murkiest of Obama’s surveillance proposals, for a commission that would examine new technologies dealing with surveillance, might actually have the most impact. That’s because some leading technologists believe that there may actually be systems that could enhance privacy rights while also allowing aggressive surveillance in cases where there was a genuine threat to national security.
James Gibney thinks the proposals are too vague:
Obama deserves some credit for recognizing that the grounds for debate on surveillance are shifting. … Really, though, only one of these steps is “specific”: the release of the legal rationale in a white paper, which happened today. The rest, as welcome as they may be, are vague promises, predicated on “work with Congress” – something that he hasn’t had a lot of success with in recent months, or even years.
The president’s mission, as set out on Friday, is to take credit for all the reforms that sound the best, and to re-establish the government as a trusted actor without doing much that’s new. In that May speech at the National Defense University, Obama committed to “a strong Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to review those issues where our counterterrorism efforts and our values may come into tension.” On Friday, he said that he’d “asked the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review where our counterterrorism efforts and our values come into tension.” Created in 2004, on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the board was effectively powerless until three months ago, when it finally got a chairman, and the president’s still bland when it comes to its goals.
Obama also caught heat for saying, “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot.” As I’ve noted, the pledge to reform precisely those programs Snowden opposed belies that assertion. As Trevor Timm points out:
More than a dozen bills have already been introduced to put a stop to the NSA’s mass phone record collection program and to overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has reinterpreted the Fourth Amendment in secret, creating a body of privacy law that the public has never read. A half-dozen new privacy lawsuits have been filed against the NSA. The Pentagon is undergoing an unprecedented secrecy audit. U.S. officials have been caught deceiving or lying to Congress. The list goes on. … If Congress passes meaningful NSA reform, Snowden may go down in history as the most influential whistleblower in American history. What could be more patriotic than that?
Snowden could be both a hero and a villain, Max Fisher argues:
Snowden has made other leaks that were not discussed at Friday’s press conference, including revealing U.S. espionage programs against China, where he was seeking shelter at the time. Espionage between nations is both legal and an accepted norm of the international system; it’s also a two-way street that China treads quite heavily. Some have argued that the cyberespionage programs that Snowden revealed may have been targeting Chinese arms control, although this is circumstantial and the exact target remains unknown. So does Snowden’s internal motivations in making these leaks, just like his others. But it’s extremely difficult to imagine a way in which these particular leaks were driven by patriotism. That’s not an argument on behalf of considering him a traitor, as some do, but just a reminder that these cases are not always as simple as binary divisions between good or bad, hero or villain.
Meanwhile, Matt Berman and Brian Resnick warn Americans not to hold their breath for any policy change:
Task forces like the one laid out [Friday] don’t have a huge history of recent success. Just look at Vice President Joe Biden’s gun task force, announced by Obama following the shooting in Newtown, Conn., last year. “This won’t be some Washington commission” that goes nowhere, Obama said in December. The task force issued recommendations in January. And aside from a failed Senate amendment, it has not resulted in any tangible change.