In his speech about the activities of the National Security Agency on Friday, President Barack Obama did what he could to maintain a line of balance between demands for more control over the actions of surveillance and the realistic admission that surveillance is an activity in which all countries engage, not just the United States.
"We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective,” Obama said.
The speech stressed that the debate over the matter, raised by information leaks from the ex-NSA technician Edward Snowden, needs to take into consideration a series of nuances. Obama cautiously admitted that the agency's capacity for action expanded more rapidly than the government's means to control them, but credited the rapid technological advances in the field of communication for this.
The main reasons for the world's indignation and for domestic pressures to curb abuses were the revelations about spying on leaders of friendly nations and monitoring of a colossal database of citizens' telephone and Internet data within the country and abroad.
The two matters were addressed by Obama. About the first, the president stated that, except for a “compelling national security purpose" the U.S. would not watch leaders of friendly nations and allies.
This declaration is pleasing rhetoric for the international community, although it is not clear which countries would fall into the aforementioned category, nor what reasons would be considered good enough to allow surveillance. Nothing was said, however, about the monitoring of other authorities who are not "leaders."
Less ethereal, in terms of reforms, Obama suggested a refinement of the secret court responsible for authorizing data monitoring and proposed that Congress take away custody of the private telephone and Internet files which the NSA maintains today.
The president pointed out that in other countries, the subject is not an object of presidential speeches: "No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account."
In the end, with one eye on pressures from the information community and the other on the traditions of respect for individual rights which is part of North American culture, the speech fulfilled its role in acknowledging changes, staying topical and keeping to the essentials.