Obama Will Keep Spying Because That’s What Presidents Do

On Friday, the president addressed concerns about NSA surveillance—and why he’s got no plans to shut it down.

President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, January 17, 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, January 17, 2014. Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Early reviews are in, and the consensus seems pretty clear: President Barack Obama isn’t going to fundamentally alter the NSA’s spying regime. As the National Journal’s James Oliphant wrote following the president’s speech Friday, new reforms “will have little operational effect” on how the National Security Agency operates going forward.

And, if you ask me, he’s got no incentive to do it.

I don’t typically share the same perspective of The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald—who helped NSA leaker Edward Snowden bring attention to the NSA’s metadata collection program—but he’s right that Obama’s address was, on one level, something of a “cosmetic” effort to reassure the public, and less about making major changes in how the government collects surveillance data.

Invoking the imagery of Paul Revere’s ride and recalling the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama made clear that he’s sensitive to criticism he’s absorbed about Snowden’s NSA revelations, noting, “it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us.” And he outlined a series of policy tweaks in an effort to address those concerns.

Chief among them was his call for the creation of a public advocate role to serve as a check against NSA lawyers when cases come before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts.

But if anyone had expected a major rollback of NSA metadata collection as a national security tool in the president’s toolbox, they’d be disappointed.

The Obama administration, via the NSA, is going to keep spying on you, me and everybody else.

It’s what presidents—Obama included—do. Here’s why:

If it’s a choice between ogre and patsy, Obama will take ogre.

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