After months of controversy related to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations about the U.S. government's domestic spying programs, President Barack Obama delivered a major policy address on January 17, in which he revealed that he had ordered a halt to the NSA's collection of bulk telephone records and made proposals for restructuring the way the government employs surveillance.
Civil libertarians, technology, and privacy organizations swiftly reacted to the President's speech, with many expressing skepticism about the depth and breadth of the administration's proposals.
As Charlottesville-based writer Ronald Bailey pointed out on Reason magazine's web site, “many prominent civil libertarian organizations do not think that the president's proposed reforms are anywhere close to being sufficient 'to constrain those in power.'”
'Proposals are disappointing'
For instance, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, honorary chairman of Our America Initiative, stated:
“The President’s proposals are disappointing, but not surprising. It is simply not realistic to expect the federal government to voluntarily relinquish powers it has granted itself, even when those powers may be unconstitutional. And when the government has convinced itself that it is OK to sweep up the phone calls, texts and emails of hundreds of millions of Americans, it is no surprise that the President is not really proposing to change anything.”
Johnson, who was the 2012 presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, added that “even if the President’s proposed ‘reforms’ are adopted, we will still have a government that has access to our most personal data, needing only the blessing of a secret court to use that data however it wishes. That is not a protection that satisfies the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches. “
Noting that Americans had long been aware that the National Security Agency had “overstepped its bounds,” John Tate, president of the Ron Paul-affiliated Campaign for Liberty, issued a statement titled “Nice Try, Mr. President,” which said in part:
“Most of President Obama’s so-called ‘reforms’ will do nothing to protect American citizens’ constitutional rights. It does not matter who stores Americans’ metadata; its collection at all at government’s bequest without an individual warrant is unconstitutional. Review by FISA’s rubber-stamping court falls far short of meeting the constitutional standard for warrants issued by an independent federal court. All Americans who value privacy should be outraged at these token, feeble attempts to rein in the NSA from a President who clearly wants the issue to just go away.”
'This should trouble everyone'
In an emailed press release, TechFreedom president Berin Szoka asserted that “the speech will probably be remembered most for the much-needed reforms it didn’t announce.”
Szoka warned that “while the President made much about narrowing the purposes of U.S. surveillance of non-citizens, he didn’t actually promise any real changes about how that surveillance is conducted. This should trouble everyone everywhere, especially those who rely on American Internet companies. It’s bad news for those companies, who need the trust of their global user base. Failing to address international concerns will only help those trying to shut off cross-border data flows to U.S. companies. That would would spell the end of the Internet as an open, global platform and, ironically, facilitate surveillance by foreign governments with far fewer scruples.”
Libertarian Party of Virginia secretary Marc Montoni, in a statement published on Facebook and delivered by email to LPVA members and activists, noted that Obama' speech “promised undeliverables” and scoffed at how the President “promised that 'greater safeguards for civil liberties' will be enacted, and that steps will be taken to rein in the worst of the NSA surveillance abuses.”
There already is “a list of 'safeguards,' said Montoni, “and they are mentioned specifically in the Constitution. If the supreme law of the land is 'just a piece of paper,' what other 'safeguards' will keep millions of bureaucrats from breaking the law further?”
The headline of an article in National Journal summed up the skeptical sentiment of many of these reactions by saying “Obama's NSA Proposals Fall Far Short of Real Change,” and adding that the “White House's tepid plan aims to calm the public, not curtail the government's surveillance programs.”