Reaction to Obama's NSA speech ranges from lukewarm to skeptical

President Obama has set new surveillance policy in response to National Security Agency spying unveiled by Edward Snowden. Critics aren't convinced that it will make much difference.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington.

As experts and advocates wade through the details of President Obama’s big speech on the National Security Agency, reviews are decidedly mixed. There’s something for everybody to like – and to dislike, it seems.

Matt Sledge at the left-leaning Huffington Post writes, “For Snowden, whose supporters have always maintained that he is a whistleblower motivated by the Constitution's higher ideals, the speech and the changes it telegraphs will likely come as a major vindication.” Edward Snowden, of course, is the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor/leaker now avoiding US prosecution in Russia.

Among other things, Obama said he would end the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata – numbers called, length of calls, etc. – which has included information on millions of Americans. He also wants to limit the spying on foreign leaders and increase the authority of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Obama may have given Snowden short shrift in his speech, but the young fugitive is the main – perhaps the only – reason Obama outlined his intended reforms Friday.

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, which bills itself as “a watchdog in defense of civil liberties, human rights and constitutional limits on government power,” finds much to like in Obama’s speech.

“We are very pleased that the President decided to institute changes on his own and not wait for congressional action,” Ms. Martin said in a statement. “These changes represent a significant victory for civil liberties and privacy. They mirror the changes that many of us in the community have been calling for.”

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, is skeptical – especially regarding continued NSA snooping on citizens overseas.

“Most of the protections Obama announced today apply only to how and when the NSA and others can look at the data,” says Mr. Roth. “What’s the guarantee that US snooping on those communications will be limited to real national security concerns? It’s not clear from Obama’s speech.”

“I doubt people in Germany or Brazil or even the US are going to be satisfied with some new hard-to-assess checks on how US intelligence uses information but no change in the fact that the US is collecting information on hundreds of millions of people in the first place,” Roth adds in a statement.

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), which calls itself “the leading Internet freedom organization working at the critical edge of policy innovation,” sees faults in Obama’s declarations regarding the NSA as well.

“We certainly welcome judicial review of metadata queries, the support for more transparency about surveillance, a voice for civil liberties at the FISA Court proceedings, and greater consideration of the rights of people outside the United States,” says Greg Nojeim, Director of CDT’s Project on Freedom, Security and Surveillance.

But, he adds, “The lack of specifics in the President’s remarks and in the directive he issued today means that this is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation, not the end.”

“At any rate,” says Mr. Nojeim, “these proposed changes do not fully address the fundamental problem of bulk collection of personal metadata and fail to adequately protect the rights of people around the world.”

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn, and Yahoo – together they recently became the “Global Government Surveillance Reform” coalition – have a special interest in retaining consumer trust and confidence in the wake of Snowden’s revelations about US spying as it pertains to email, Internet use, and social media.

“The commitments outlined by President Obama represent positive progress on key issues including transparency from the government and in what companies will be allowed to disclose, extending privacy protections to non-US citizens, and FISA court reform,” they said in a joint statement after the president’s speech.

But, they added, “Crucial details remain to be addressed on these issues, and additional steps are needed on other important issues, so we’ll continue to work with the administration and Congress to keep the momentum going and advocate for reforms consistent with the principles we outlined in December.”

Meanwhile, foreign governments and their leaders – some of whose phones were tapped by US intelligence services – were paying close attention as well.

“We don’t expect him to go into great detail in a speech like this,” said Claude Moraes, a British Labor member of the European Parliament who’s leading the investigation into the NSA leaks, reports “The concern is that while it’s very good on rhetoric, will it end with any real change for non-U.S. actors?”

This wait-and-see attitude was virtually universal.

“We particularly welcome the willingness of President Obama to extend safeguards currently available to US citizens as regards data collection for national security purposes to non US-citizens,”  European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said in a statement. “We will now explore the full implications of this commitment.”

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