“We’re going to have to make some choices as a society,” President Barack Obama said in early June, in his sensible initial reaction to the revelations of pervasive electronic surveillance of Americans and others by the top-secret National Security Agency. Obama added that we cannot realistically have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy, plus zero inconvenience.
These comments were pragmatic and realistic. They provide insight into his remarkable skill at persuading and winning people, essential to his exceptional success in electoral politics.
Unfortunately, Obama’s remarks at an Aug. 9 press conference focused exclusively on public concern about invasions of privacy, and not at all on how intelligence information is best collected and most accurately analyzed. In consequence, he has demonstrated notable failure in fulfilling his presidential responsibility to educate the public, to be distinguished from the candidate’s essential need to court the voters.
The president dramatically announced four new measures to expand public awareness and official oversight of intelligence activities.
First, the White House in cooperation with Congress will review and possibly change Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes collection of telephone records.
Congress passed this comprehensive law in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., cast the sole “no” vote in the Senate. His opposition centered on concern about excessive invasion of privacy. The bill passed the House of Representatives 357-66.
Second, the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes surveillance, will be required to consider opposing viewpoints. Apparently, intelligence agents requesting authority will confront, in adversarial fashion, defenders of uncompromised privacy.
This relates to the third proposal, which involves pressing the NSA to make more information public, including a website to serve as “a hub for further transparency.”
Fourth, an outside review panel is to be established. It will focus on “intelligence and communications technologies.” That is a particularly telling point.
While the extent of NSA electronic-information gathering is unprecedented, United States government surveillance of large numbers of citizens is not. Long before 9/11, Cold War concerns led to comparable practices. Some of these were clearly illegal, which does not appear to be the case with current practices of government intelligence agencies.
In 1967, amid civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, U.S. Army Gen. William P. Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for intelligence, sent an unprecedented request to the NSA to collect intelligence on the growing domestic unrest. This sparked extensive domestic surveillance involving the Army and CIA as well as the NSA.
This earlier program emphasized both electronic and human surveillance. By contrast, the NSA today apparently minimizes messy human dimensions in favor of comprehensive but essentially passive and unimaginative electronic tools. That is real cause for concern. Effective security requires both.
The current controversy provides opportunity for Obama to demonstrate executive leadership and discuss the need for both surveillance and secrecy. Instead, by emphasizing public anxieties regarding privacy, the White House characteristically continues a purely political approach.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc.