Obama and the NSA: Count the Code Words

US President Barack Obama winks after speaking about the National Security Agency (NSA) and US surveillance techniques on Friday. While signaling some changes, Obama mostly defended controversial NSA terrorism programs. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama winks after speaking about the National Security Agency (NSA) and US surveillance techniques on Friday. While signaling some changes, Obama mostly defended controversial NSA terrorism programs. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The assessments of just what President Barack Obama is doing or might do to controversial surveillance programs run by the Pentagon’s NSA since his big Friday speech have been, one might say generously, uneven.

Is Obama ending the bulk collection of telephone traffic metadata, or making minor changes? Is he signaling a landmark change in how Washington has kept an eye — and ear — on even its closest allies? The answers depend on what you’re reading at that moment or to whom you’re speaking.

There’s one way to get a better read on just what Obama has in mind for the final result of his NSA reforms — or “reforms.” Let’s play “Count the Code Words,” shall we?

Can we get any kind of subtle — or not-so-subtle feel — in his own words that might show us how the commander in chief feels about the NSA programs?

Obama: “Taken together, these efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives – not just here in the United States, but around the globe as well.”

Translation: Not many code words there. Obama, despite one narrative, typically signals just what he’s thinking and planning to do.

Obama said on Friday that when he was first briefed on the programs, he had immediate concerns. A commander in chief who asks questions? A novel concept. But after those questions were answered, did being the individual responsible for stopping another massive al-Qaida attack change the thinking of a president who, as a candidate, criticized many George W. Bush-era counterterrorism programs?

Obama: “What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale – not only because I felt that they made us more secure; but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.”

Translation: I get the daily threat briefing. Trust me, scary stuff. Metadata, good. Terrorist attacks, bad. As for NSA abuse, who are you gonna believe, the commander in chief standing in front of these massive American flags or some kid in Russia hiding behind Vladimir Putin? Right.

If anyone read or watched the speech waiting for signs that Obama has turned against the programs since Edward Snowden set off a firestorm about them, think again. Obama is somewhat enamored with them, it seems.

Obama: “Let me repeat what I said when this story first broke – this program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the names of people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of calls – metadata that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.”

Translation: I’m the commander in chief and I have been convinced/have concluded that these programs are important in, wait for it, protecting the homeland. So they’re staying unless Congress makes them illegal. And, by the way, Congress, I dare you.

And speaking of Congress, Obama used some code words to both call out lawmakers and, perhaps, use their utter dysfunction to kill some NSA-reform ideas that several groups are pushing.

Obama: “To ensure that the Court hears a broader range of privacy perspectives, I am calling on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”

Translation: Sure, I could probably do this myself. And while I’m not convinced it’s necessary, it’s not the worst idea floating around out there. If it happens, great. If not, ehh. Look, I’m a Constitutional law professor by trade and Congress has a few war powers left, so this one’s on you. It would be a win for you guys and for me. But it’s your call. If it dies because you can’t agree on some details, ehh. I’ll be in the Situation Room, searching some terrorist metadata…

Still, there were plenty of headlines Friday and Saturday morning declaring Obama’s NSA “overhaul” and “shake up,” with many declaring an end to the metadata program. Oh really? Mr. President, your thoughts?

Obama: “The Review Group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused. And I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved. … I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk meta-data. … Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.”

Translation: Sure, the dog couldn’t resist chomping down on its favorite bone when we weren’t looking a few times. But, c’mon, and let me be clear, as long as I’m in charge, we’re going to search a lot more metadata. I said ‘hold,’ not ‘search.’ There will be searching. So. Much. Searching. Get used to it. The FISA Court? Yeah, we’re good with those guys, so, we’ll be querying what needs querying, okay? Oh, and I get to decide what warrants an emergency. (Wink.) We’re going to the two-step policy because — let’s be real — we don’t really go three steps right now. So, there you go, Team Privacy: Reform! There’s your bone. If you want another one, go see Congress.

A lot was made about Obama declaring Washington would cease spying on leaders of some nations with which it long has been close. About that…

Obama: “Few, if any, spy agencies around the world constrain their activities beyond their own borders. And the whole point of intelligence is to obtain information that is not publicly available. But America’s capabilities are unique. And the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”

Translation: U-S-A! U-S-A! Our intel tools are better than yours, and I’ll be damned if I’m locking them in the shed. Have you seen the size of my intelligence budgets? Oh, and that underlining above are from my own version of the speech. Just to drive home a few points about our suite of intel weapons, errr, tools.

Obama: “We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies. … We know that the intelligence services of other countries – including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures – are constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations, intercept our emails, or compromise our systems. Meanwhile, a number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world’s only superpower; that our intelligence capabilities are critical to meeting these responsibilities; and that they themselves have relied on the information we obtain to protect their own people.”

Translation: I live in the real world. And I heard that, Merkel. I’m cracking the curtain to settle you and your Euro friends down. Do you really want me to pull it all the way open? Bottom line: I’m all in on these programs — and spying on our friends just like they spy on me. (They also ask to borrow our awesome intel tools, so…) I’m the “Covert Commander in Chief,” for crying out loud. Why did anyone expect anything different?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett