Obama’s Credibility Trap

President Obama just stood before the nation and said,

And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

Even as he was speaking, his Administration released a document that said, in part,

Since the telephony metadata collection program under Section 215 was initiated, there have been a number of significant compliance and implementation issues that were discovered as a result of DOJ and ODNI reviews and internal NSA oversight. In accordance with the Court’s rules, upon discovery, these violations were reported to the FISC, which ordered appropriate remedial action. The incidents, and the Court’s responses, were also reported to the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees in great detail. These problems generally involved human error or highly sophisticated technology issues related to NSA’s compliance with particular aspects of the Court’s orders. The FISC has on occasion been critical of the Executive Branch’s compliance problems as well as the Government’s court filings. However, the NSA and DOJ have corrected the problems identified to the Court, and the Court has continued to authorize the program with appropriate remedial measures.

While (as I will show in a future post), Obama’s Administration has worked hard to prevent details of these violations from becoming public and delayed even the Judiciary Committees from being briefed, some of them may come out as part of the DOJ Inspector General review that the Administration tried to thwart in 2009.

Also, even as he was speaking, EFF announced the government will turn over a redacted copy of the October 3, 2011 FISA Court ruling that found the minimization procedures for Section 702 violated the Fourth Amendment. A new Guardian report suggests that ruling may pertain to the use of a backdoor to conduct warrantless searches on US person content already collected under Section 702. (While many commentators have insisted the Guardian report provides no evidence of abuse, NSA and DNI’s Inspectors General refused to count how often Americans have been searched in such a way, effectively refusing to look if it has been abused.)

As Shane Harris astutely describes, all of this kabuki is designed solely to make people feel more comfortable about these dragnets.

And the President’s message really boiled down to this: It’s more important to persuade people surveillance is useful and legal than to make structural changes to the programs.

“The question is, how do I make the American people more comfortable?” Obama said.

Not that Obama’s unwilling to make any changes to America’s surveillance driftnets — and he detailed a few of them — but his overriding concern was that people didn’t believe him when he said there was nothing to fear.

But the President just stood up and claimed the government hasn’t abused any of these programs.

It has, by its own admission, violated the rules for them.

Meanwhile, Ron Wyden has already released a statement applauding some of these changes while noting that Obama is still minimizing how bad the violations have been.

Notably absent from President Obama’s speech was any mention of closing the backdoor searches loophole that potentially allows for the warrantless searches of Americans’ phone calls and emails under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. I believe that this provision requires significant reforms as well and I will continue to fight to close that loophole. I am also concerned that the executive branch has not fully acknowledged the extent to which violations of FISC orders and the spirit of the law have already had a significant impact on Americans’ privacy.

Ultimately, details of these violations will come out, and are on their way out in some form already.

If this press conference was designed solely to make us feel better, wouldn’t Obama have been better advised to come clean about these violations than to pretend they don’t exist?


22 replies
  1. Snoopdido says:

    In keeping with Obama’s announcement today relayed to the public via his press conference that the Intelligence Community be more transparent and open, the NSA has released the following – NSA: Missions, Authorities, Oversight and Partnerships – http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/_files/speeches_testimonies/2013_08_09_the_nsa_story.pdf

    One might take note the name the NSA chose for its new transparency: The NSA Story. Or as the American public will see it: Internet Fairy Tales for the 21st Century.

  2. P J Evans says:

    He also claims we don’t torture people and that drone strikes have ‘surgical precision’.
    I’d laugh, but it isn’t funny any more.

  3. orionATL says:

    that there may have been no abuse of nsa/fbi spying that has come to ligbt,
    as a criterion for judging the constitutuional and pplitical wisdom of those multiple spying programs is simply inane. doing so is being willfully,foolishly blind to the dangerous possibility for exploitation by determined politicians or generals.

    for christ’s sake, morons of the media commentariat, look at what cheney and addington and bush had accomplished with patently illegal spying within a few months of the sept 2001 bombing of the wtc.

    now, 12 years later, look at the multiple spying agencies we have created that would have been the envy of stalin’s ussr or mao’s china during the cultural revolution,

    a set of spying agencies which have been directly coupled to national police forces and consequently could crush domestic political opposition in mere months.

    the possibility of easy, rapid, devastating destruction of our form of constitutional government should be the sole criterion for retaining or destroying the current spying structures – social and technical.

    i have said it previously and will repeat here, there is something very malign and very mysterious about the president’s decisions on matters of national security issues.

  4. Frank33 says:

    Lies, damn lies, and Obama lies, it is a trifecta. Snowden is a disruptive element who hurts the debate. The President provided safeguards for truth tellers.

    Snowden’s only contribution to that process was to disrupt it and hurt the actual debate by generating heat rather than light, as well as the fact that it was the president that provided safeguards for whistleblowers within the intelligence community.

    And it gets funnier because The People’s Voice is actually the Government Voice. And it provides a safe place for Obama sycophants to bash the left. And it is Snowden who is hurting False Flag accountability, and hindering the US Stasi. Snowden had a simple goal, actually he had four complex goals. But those goals are restricted to the government. Individuals such as Snowden cannot be allowed to obfuscate reality.

    Especially riling up people to support wars and torture and dangerous agendas about a mythical secret government. And that secret government invents phony terrorism to create a military dictatorship, run by corrupt Generals and their mistresses.

    And lots more laughs, as the government explains what we have a need to know. Snowden and Greenwald have hurt the process of surveillance review. That is because the responsible officials had to answer for their dirty deeds, instead of devising a better system. Curse you Snowden and Greewald for preventing accountability in the secret government..

    He – and his foreign media compadres – had a simple goal in mind: to generate sensational headlines, obfuscate the reality, and get people riled up to serve their own sinister and dangerous libertarian agenda by spreading the paranoid myth of a government surveillance tool under every pillow. As the president pointed out, Snowden, Greenwald, et al have actually harmed the process of a proper review of our surveillance, as it sent responsible officials scurrying for a response to set the record straight on their intentional deceptions rather than devising a better system.

  5. Casual Observer says:

    I think Harris misses, or is being a bit fuzzy perhaps. It’s not, as Harris seems to be saying, that Obama thinks public trust is more important than any actual (presumably minor) problems with spying. Rather, as you say–Obama has now flatly *denied that any abuse exists*. Period.

    But obviously he and Wyden can’t both be right. You’re absolutely right imo that sooner or later these abuses are going to come out. When they do, Obama’s cred drops even lower–if that’s conceivably possible.

    Plus, in the meantime, while Obama’s ‘independent experts’ do their ‘work’–does Obama think Greenwald et al. are going to just sit there on 15-20,000 Snowden documents and do nothing?

  6. Tom in AZ says:

    @Frank33: When I stumbled upon ‘the People’s View, it took me about 3 minutes see what a load of crap they spout everyday. Hard to find a more smug bunch of folks, even on the right. Must be nice being the cool, rational assholes.

  7. greengiant says:

    Does anyone think Obama has any credibility or integrity? Which part of America is Obama playing to? Not that Clinton or Bush the younger were any better.
    With all this spy power, still no successful criminal prosecutions for the financial crises grand theft mortgage servicing and brokering, just a law to make MERS the law of the land and ixnay on state property law. And just because you have money in a financial instution, the GS bandits can steal it from there also ala MF Global and Jon Corzine or the Cyprus banks visa vi the lawlessness of the city of London.

  8. lefty665 says:

    The profound abuse is turning NSA’s gaze inward.

    Obama said today he still believes in all these programs. He also said his job is to convince people that they should be comfortable with them too. Obama was not advocating changing what NSA is doing. He likes it.

    What is wrong is the wholesale collection of nearly all domestic communications. It is that collection that provides the opportunity for abuse, and for tyranny. Old NSAers and Senator Church made that very plain decades ago.

    NSA has a legitimate mission, and programs like Thin Thread gave them the ability to accomplish it without destroying the Bill of Rights. That was rejected. Hayden and Duhbya decided to go after all US communications in addition to foreign. Alexander and Obama have doubled up on that and tried to provide a veneer of legality.

    Until we stop the massive over collection, nothing else amounts to much.

    Fiddling around the edges as Obama did today is a distraction from what is really wrong. He is trying to frame the issue out of existence. Malfeasance, sedition, several characterizations might fit the behavior. But whatever it is called, the destruction of the 4th amendment is what it is about.

  9. JThomason says:

    @greengiant: My estimate is that he yet appeals to those who find the social impact of his presidency significant, the constituency that favors Hillary’s ascension and the socially liberal, something of the anti-fundamentalist, as it were, the “fundamentalist” being that faction which “W” courted as the “Christian Right.” The movement against reproductive rights by many in the mainstream the GOP certainly is not creating much of anything in terms of a viable opposition. The wedge issues yet have leverage.

    Constitutional limitations have historically been slow to aid these constituencies and so the fact of the social revolution O’s presidency represents continue to have appeal. Its politics, I am not saying its right or wrong.

  10. Chris Harries says:

    Historically the fruits of these massive information gathering programmes are “leaked” selectively to, in the end, lynch mobs.

    Is Scott Ritter still in jail?

  11. JThomason says:

    At the present there is no organized viable electoral check to these executive branch excesses. Remember it was a Republican president, er VP, who installed them.

  12. orionATL says:

    “… It is that collection that provides the opportunity for abuse, and for tyranny. Old NSAers and Senator Church made that very plain decades ago…”

    yes, indeed. there was a time in nsa’s history following the church committee findings that nsa’s leaders really took the law and the rules very seriously. i’m not certain of my memory, but i seem to recall that even as recently as when cheney-bush began their push for illegal activity activityfrom nsa, the nsa leadership refused to tag along.

    nsa does have a legitimate, even vital, role. but remarkably bad stewardship by bush admin and obama admin, combined with a zealous, rutheless pushing leadership by hayden and alexander, has now tarred nsa’s reputation needlessly and will make it much harder for it to be trusted by congress to do the work it legitimately can do, and much harder for it to regain the trust of the citizenry that it acquired after sen church’s group’s effort.

    a needless tragedy all the way around.

    lon snowden, edward’s father, in a recent interview with the washington post said that as a coast guard officer he had been blessed with excellent leadership most of his career, but he as much as said that the bush and obama admins involved serious failures of leadership.

  13. orionATL says:

    lefty –

    i think this must be maintenance/improvement time on the ew channel. things ain’t working so well.

    since “reply” didn’t work, i’ll do things the old-fashioned way.

    my comment at #16 (i think) was an affirmation of your comment at #11 (i think).

    your point is important – the nsa/fbi electronic spying represents a major, necessary technical capability.

  14. P J Evans says:

    Some of us wanted Mr O primaried last year, to get him to rethink his rightward movement from his stated views before the 2008 election.

  15. cymack says:

    Things have gone much too far when something like this gives a person their laugh of the week (from Marcy’s twitter feed up yonder):

    At what point, in the absence of Snowden, did Obama intend to reveal NSA detail and prompt this debate?

  16. lefty665 says:

    @orionATL: Tks. Get a copy of Bamford’s “Shadow Factory”. It’s chapter and verse of NSA’s transformation after 911, and how they set up to get it all, domestic and foreign. Hayden rolled very quickly.

  17. JThomason says:

    @P J Evans: Obama’s credibility problems around these issues were apparent prior to 2008 with his FISA flip flop which did not pass among the emptywheel crowd un-noted at the time.

    There does seem to be some energy in Congress about reforming these programs but Congress has been particularly impotent in the face of the rise and expansion of executive power which is part and parcel into these domestic 4th Amendment and Freedom of Assembly issue. And the general deference of the Federal Courts to National Security claims renders the prospect of effective judicial control remote.

    When I reflect that electoral control does not seem to be in the offing this really speaks more to the coalitions that currently define the effectiveness of the wedges that exploit deep social divisions. Maybe I misperceive but I don’t sense that its necessarily the Tea Party Republicans that are driving these social wedges. On the Constitutional issues there appears to be some common ground that could be politically exploited by rule-of-law liberal Democrats and those Republican’s who feel disenfranchised to the extent that the Tea Party is attractive. Isn’t this the coalition that emerged in Congress over security estate issues a few weeks ago? Problem is that these factions, particularly in their roots, are loathe to acknowledge shared Constitutional principles particularly because of the “ghosts” of historically present socio-economic divides. Nevertheless this seems to be where the shared Constitutionally empowered middle resides. Yet I am not sure Washington gets off the time of the power it has accrued until some consequences for illegal activity emerge. And none seem to be on the horizon. I have spoken to many Republicans who conceded W. Bush did the country no favors and Hillary does not seem particularly outraged at the emergence of the intrusive mechanisms of the “interests and values” of the unified executive.

  18. P J Evans says:

    I remember the FISA flip very clearly. I was one of the people on OFA putting up posts against it, that year. It’s why the bumpersticker my car acquired is ‘Get Disappointed by Somebody New’.

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