Obama′s NSA speech: more than a sop? | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 18.01.2014
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Obama's NSA speech: more than a sop?

After weeks of debate, US President Barack Obama announced additional oversight measures for NSA surveillance programs. But key questions were left unanswered and little is likely to change for non-Americans.

Back in 2007, Senator Barack Obama called the state's overzealous surveillance a "rampage" and demanded an end to "illegal telephone surveillance on American citizens."

Now, as president and the US military's commander in chief, Obama took a less strident approach to reforming the National Security Agency (NSA), said Annegret Bendiek, a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington.

The considered speech sought to balance the intelligence community's needs against civil liberties. But Obama's speech was mainly addressed to his fellow US citizens, who have proved to be much less upset with the scope of spying conducted by the NSA than people in Europe and Brazil.

USA Attorney General Eric H. Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder is to carry out new controls

A good start

The speech was a "good start," at least according to Cynthia Wong of Human Rights Watch in Washington. "The president acknowledged that he needed to respect the privacy of the millions of people outside of the US whose rights might have been violated by the NSA," she said. "But there is a lot we do not know about how he is actually going to fix that problem."

That is why Bendiek is more pessimistic. "It put a band-aid on the major concerns coming from Europe, and particularly from Germany," she said.

Obama, who was quick to bring up the ills of the all-encompassing surveillance state in the former East Germany, remained vague in his 40-minute speech while making promises of transparency and judicial oversight. But he did not provide details on how such measures would be implemented. Only the leaders of friendly nations received a promise that their privacy would be respected, which makes Chancellor Angela Merkel the only German who can feel safe from the NSA's spy programs.

German reservations

But mere promises of transparency and new controls were not enough to restore the German government's trust in Obama's administration completely. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said only that Berlin would analyze the president's statement closely, though Tim Maurer of the New America Foundation showed some understanding for the president, who, he said, is in a difficult position.

USA Deutschland Lädiertes Bündnis

The 'Merkel Moment' apparently swung public opinion

"On the one hand he is responsible for protecting his country and its people," he said. "The intelligence agencies are part of that, and they have to have the chance to fulfill their missions. On the other hand, the pressure from human and civil rights groups and Internet companies has grown stronger in the past few months." This was thanks in part to the "Angela Merkel moment," which, at least according to CNN, caused a swing in public opinion.

Wong says that many reforms will take time, but Obama could implement some measures without congressional approval. For instance, "He could immediately order the NSA to stop the bulk metadata collection outside the US. And we're clearly disappointed that he didn't take a much more direct approach." Bendiek also says little has changed for non-US citizens, even if Obama did order Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence agencies to carry out new checks.

Strengthening the courts

"If he would be precise, he could have said, in the interest of trust-building, my approach would be to work on a no-spy agreement within the framework of NATO," says Bendiek. "But he didn't do that." Wong adds that European Internet users could not be satisfied with Obama's speech, and neither could American Internet giants Google and Facebook.

The NSA's hugely controversial mass collection of Americans' telephone metadata is at the center of Obama's proposals. Although the president wants to continue using that metadata, he said that it would no longer be stored in government databases. But Obama did not specify which third party would store the data - that decision will be made during a transitional period that ends in March.

During that transition period, data can only be collected following a judicial review by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) or in the case of a "true" national emergency. On top of that, Obama defied judges' reservations and called for a panel of advocates from outside government to weigh in on any major FISC decisions in the future.

The president also said that he would order the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to put more restrictions on the surveillance of non-US persons. But the details remain unclear.


The pressure on the NSA has increased in recent months

"We think there will be a really great change in the way surveillance is conducted right now," said Wong - FISC judges often have too much to do. "That will take action from Congress, and so we will be looking to Congress next to make sure that a lot of these suggestions be implemented." But whether the deeply divided legislators do their bit remains to be seen.

Use of phone data

Human Rights Watch has called for an immediate stop to the mass collection of metadata, on the grounds there is no proven benefit to national security, a conclusion that a recent study by the New America Foundation leant weight to. "The core results of the study were that the collection of telephone metadata has no major impact on fighting terrorism. That's always been the government's argument," says Maurer. "On top of that, we concluded that the government often inflated the potential threat." Maurer also thinks that there is still a huge lack of transparency in the public debate. The president's latest speech, he argued, has done little to change that.

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