A Challenge for Obama

The massive espionage scandal requires a policy response from the White House.

One of the urgent issues that Barack Obama must address is how the National Security Administration (NSA) should operate. In January, the U.S. president will announce his plans to regulate the surveillance activities carried out by the intelligence services. It is a promise that cannot be postponed. The uncontrolled appetite of U.S. espionage, exposed by Edward Snowden, demands an immediate policy response from the White House.

The slow leak of information by the former NSA employee and his colleagues has eroded the American image and ability to maneuver. It has affected U.S. relations with even its closest allies. Leaks reveal the global monitoring of phone calls and the Internet in pursuit of terrorists as well as direct spying for political, and sometimes even commercial, ends. In fact, last Friday it came out that NSA had intercepted cell phone calls made by Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission, when, at the dawn of the 2008 crisis, he was responsible for the economic affairs.

Since June, Obama has not stopped excusing himself to the leaders in question. Now he should take the next step of acting in concrete ways to end to the abuse. The report created by a committee of experts (which he appointed) is on his desk. It proposes ways to limit the reach of espionage, including greater presidential control of certain decisions and the placement of a team of lawyers inside the secret court which — seemingly as just a formality — authorizes NSA operations. Other suggestions, such as leaving the collection and storage of metadata to telephone companies or some private entity, have been rejected by those responsible for intelligence.

The report is linked to a judicial decision that questions — appropriately — the constitutionality of electronic surveillance programs created after 9/11 based on the grounds of arbitrary and indiscriminate invasion of privacy. This case and at least three others will likely reach the Supreme Court.

Obama should restore confidence because terrorist networks create challenges that require international collaboration. Thus, it is essential that NSA be adequately supervised. This might also be the right moment to review the Patriot Act, which has enabled these and other serious excesses.

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