President Barack Obama Frday coupled his new curbs on NSA surveillance with straightforward praise for the intelligence community’s mission, methods and moral purpose.
The praise is noteworthy partly because Obama has repeatedly declared and shown his personal distance from the military and its mission, and because he’s under pressure from his progressive base to dismiss and diminish the intelligence community’s mission.
“In an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic,” the president said in a speech at the Department of Justice. “The men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people.”
The location was likely intended to highlight civilian oversight of the military NSA, which is based just north of Washington D.C., in Fort Meade, Maryland.
“They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails… What sustains those who work at NSA through all these pressures is the knowledge that their professionalism and dedication play a central role in the defense of our nation,” Obama said.
Obama backed the agency’s anti-terror mission, saying the NSA’s inability to track cellphone data in 2001 prevented its realization that an al-Qaida group was operating in the United States.
He also endorsed the NSA’s need to be able to detect and block cyberspace threats, such as hacker attacks on banks, electricity grids and other vital portions of the nation’s infrastructure.
“We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications — whether it’s to unravel a terrorist plot; to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange; to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised; or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts,” he said.
“We know that the intelligence services of other countries – including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures – are constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations, intercept our emails, or compromise our systems,” Obama said. “A number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge…that they themselves have relied on the information we obtain to protect their own people.”
Obama also denounced the private sector, and he declined to note that data collection and surveillance in private business is done in a voluntary and straightforward manner, with the terms of usage for data services clearly spelled out in contracts that customers sign without duress — unlike government surveillance which is conducted without the consent or knowledge of its objects.
Obama declined to name such private data collection actors as Google and Facebook, whose top managers have been generally supportive of the president and many of his favorite progressive causes.
“The challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze your data, and use it for commercial purposes; that’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone,” he said.
Obama also did not discuss the many practical and constitutional distinctions between customer-oriented private data usage and government surveillance of unwilling Americans.
He also sought to reassure foreign listeners that U.S. surveillance is not overreaching.
“The United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes, and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary people… and we do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies, or U.S. commercial sectors,” Obama said.
“The bottom line is that people around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account,” said Obama.
“Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments – as opposed to ordinary citizens – around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does,” he said at the end of his speech.
“We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective. But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners,” he added.