It seems to have been difficult for President Barack Obama to relate to Edward Snowden. The National Security Agency whistleblower has become the-man-who-is-not-to-be-mentioned-by-name in the White House. But in last Friday’s speech on surveillance intelligence, the security agency and the NSA’s methods, the president was clear.
Snowden, whose name was mentioned twice during the speech, is not a whistleblower in Obama’s world. His actions are described as an unforgivable betrayal toward the American people and are said to have damaged American security in a way that can never be understood. The leaks have generated hot air instead of bringing clarity to U.S. intelligence, said Obama in his speech.
The latest in a number of leaked NSA documents dealt with how the American intelligence programs trawl through and save information from 200 million text messages every day. Thanks to news like this a debate is going on, in the U.S. and the surrounding world, about the surveillance methods of the 21st century. The president’s 45 minute-long speech on reforms to the intelligence service implies an indirect acknowledgement of Snowden.
To view the NSA as an unmanageable power monster beyond the control of democracy has also become more common in the circle around the president. The president could have described the problem something like this: The authority is guilty of violations and the NSA’s methods expose the open society to obvious threats.
But he did not. The speech became a defense of the American right to spy and gather intelligence. According to Obama, the NSA has not violated its authorities. The fundamental dilemma that was mentioned in last Friday’s speech was instead presented as general and purely hypothetical questions.
Essentially it was about three proposals. Obama asked the authorities to change their working methods to improve protection of integrity of foreign citizens. He gave Congress a mission to start looking at new legislation that makes it possible to shift the responsibility for the data storage. And he suggested that a court, with the purpose of surveying the surveyors, should be established.
The proposals are similar to the arrangement we have in Sweden. The EU’s intelligence directive says that phone and broadband companies must save their customers’ data traffic and call lists in order for the companies to be able to give information when the government requires it. This solution is not as shady as leaving it all up to the authorities.
But the storage law is an absurd thought. If the post office had demanded to register and save information on what letters have been sent to what addresses, the law would have been considered part of a police state.
Sweden also has a court with some mandate to examine the methods of the intelligence authority, the FRA. Such an authority is needed, but the creation of one, in itself, does not give any practical guarantees. The secret court could easily become a doormat instead of a safety lock.
The devil is in the details, and reforms are, above all, dependent on the political will. When it comes to Obama there are reasons to be doubtful. His political challenge has been to withdraw from the U.S. wars without looking like an incompetent dove. The drone war in Pakistan and Yemen has escalated, the closing down of the Guantanamo prison has been put on hold and the NSA’s intelligence has intensified. As a political strategy it is sure to be a success, as Americans are sincerely fed up with the wars and, at the same time, do not have any strong objections to either drone attacks or surveillance intelligence.
Yet, a new opinion poll suggests that a majority of the voters seem to have been influenced by the criticism of the NSA. Six out of ten Americans do not want the authority to be allowed to carry on the way it has with its snooping in call lists and data communications. The same number of people expresses little confidence in the capability of the state to prevent abuse of the NSA’s register. And even if they are a minority, there are members of Congress who want to tighten intelligence.
Maybe it is time for the pendulum to swing. The U.S. was the front-runner of the draconian and arbitrary legal system that became the answer of the whole Western world to the attacks on Sept. 11. It would be good if the country also came first in changing that policy.