Of Oversight, Hindsight and Foresight

In hindsight, the Obama administration’s oversight of government surveillance programs has been lacking — presumably due to insufficient foresight regarding the inevitable abuses, leaks and public outcry.

This appears to be the upshot of President Barack Obama’s press conference on a proposed series of reforms to National Security Agency surveillance practices precipitated by the Snowden revelations, though he was careful not to actually say so. (After all, somebody might be listening.)

The president’s multi-point response — all of which calls for more accountability and transparency — implies, of course, that until now there has been a lack of accountability and transparency. But we realize it may be too much to ask of a high public official to point the finger of blame at himself and his own appointees. Often as not, it is sufficient (dare we wish for more?) that the responsible officer of government act to correct the wrongdoings and shortcomings that exist, even without a mea culpa.

Included in the reforms is the incorporation into the Patriot Act of additional safeguards against abuse; declassification of information on NSA activities where national security would not be undermined; and a high-level group of outside experts to review the intelligence and communications technologies.

But most significant of all is likely the one that embraces the long-advocated adversarial voice in the secret hearings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, where electronic spying gets authorized. If implemented, it could go a long way toward assuring that individual privacy rights are properly balanced against national security issues. Even if security will usually win out (since nobody wants to get blamed for missing the next al-Qaida plot), it will be an improvement. Something like Big Brother with a conscience.

If the president is serious about these reforms — and the security establishment is sufficiently shaken by the recent leaks to adopt them —it could indeed herald the “new thinking for a new era” of security policy which he said is needed.

The chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, promised that the review announced by the president would be the “primary order of business” for the committee after the summer.

At the very least, it’s a step in the right direction.

However, what leaves us feeling uneasy is that so much of the reform presented was palliative and vague, wrapped in the creation of expert committees and couched in the language of dialogue and consultation, of steps to take and greater constraints. Such nebulous language may be unavoidable at this early stage in a comprehensive review of a vast, entrenched bureaucracy. But the public must be wary, and insist on concrete changes.

The president stressed over and over in his remarks that public trust must be strengthened. “It’s not enough for me to have confidence in these programs,” he said, making use of his own reputation as a civil libertarian who reluctantly approves surveillance because there is no other way to protect America. “The American people have to have confidence in them as well.”

To underscore the point, President Obama employed a homely analogy about the need to prove to First Lady Michelle Obama that he actually does wash the dishes at home. We will refrain here from recommending the establishment of a panel of home economics experts and civil libertarians to review the White Housekeeping to determine whether the president is fulfilling his responsibilities in the kitchen.

The analogy is charming, but a bit patronizing, too. The reason for the crisis in trust is not due merely to lack of information or to some misplaced suspicion on our part. It is the result of the disquieting disclosure of actual government snooping on a massive scale, with technology that makes the KGB look like amateurs. It’s not just a matter of reassuring a high-strung, fretful citizenry. There are real abuses, and they demand real reforms — like the latest revelation, that the NSA has been empowered by the FISA to use secret access into its databases to search for U.S. citizens’ email and phone calls without a warrant, as reported in the British newspaper The Guardian.

During the press conference, Obama assured the world that “America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.…We shouldn’t forget the difference between the ability of our government to collect information online under strict guidelines and for narrow purposes, and the willingness of some other governments to throw their own citizens in prison for what they say online.”

That’s exactly why reforms are needed — to preserve that difference.