President Obama’s speech Friday about surveillance and the National Security Agency was remarkable in that it spoke to the Americans people as if they were adults, capable of understanding the complexities of this controversial issue.
It was also balanced, paying respect to the arguments of both sides — those who say unprecedented government snooping, including on American citizens, is necessary to stop terrorist attacks, and those who say it goes too far, violates civil liberties and the Constitution. But in the end, it didn’t result in much — or enough.
Obama’s speech and actions were in response to the firestorm created six months ago by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of government surveillance. This includes the until-then secret “metadata” program in which the government collects and stores massive amounts of information on phone calls and emails by American citizens not suspected of any crime, with computers looking for patterns suggesting links to terrorists.
Obama said he would suspend the program, but only temporarily, until a way could be found to have some existing or new private entity hold the information until the government needs it.
This begs the question of whether it really does need it. While the president and U.S. intelligence officials have claimed in the past that information from the program was directly responsible for thwarting more than 50 terrorist threats here and abroad (“lives have been saved,” Obama said), others who have seen the classified information, including congressmen and his own NSA review panel, found scant evidence.
It would be a shame if Obama’s small steps relieved the pressure for a real, and needed, national debate about whether protection against any terrorist attack is worth the price to Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. The president said in his speech that he will invite Congress to work with him on further reforms. Congress should take him up on that, but on its own grounds and its own terms. It doesn’t have to accept Obama’s facts or formulations.