Friday afternoon was, for many, the statement the world had been waiting six months for.
In a full speech, President Obama affirmed that “mass surveillance has a future” claiming that the NSA is “not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails.” The full transcript of the speech is available here via the Guardian; in it, Obama claimed that the creation of the NSA by President Truman was “to give us insight into the Soviet bloc, and provide our leaders with information they needed to confront aggression and avert catastrophe.”
Citing uses of the agency through the Cold War and military efforts, he said that the move to online activity “made these threats more acute, as technology erased borders and empowered individuals to project great violence.”
Obama said: “It is hard to overstate the transformation America’s intelligence community had to go through after 9/11. Our agencies suddenly needed to do far more than the traditional mission of monitoring hostile powers and gathering information for policymakers – instead, they were asked to identify and target plotters in some of the most remote parts of the world, and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by their very nature, cannot be easily penetrated with spies or informants.
“New laws allow information to be collected and shared more quickly between federal agencies, and state and local law enforcement. Relationships with foreign intelligence services have expanded, and our capacity to repel cyber-attacks has been strengthened. 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.”
Obama defended actions by the NSA, saying he did not stop the programs completely when he became President as he felt that “they made us more secure” and because nothing in that initial review “indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.”
“They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails…Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations. I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.
“Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”
Obama claimed that terrorist attacks or cyber threats cannot be prevented without some capability to penetrate digital communications and it cannot “unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.”
The main theme of the speech was to prove the fallibility of staff at the NSA, who he described as normal people with families and social media accounts, rather than information slurping drones. While he announced changes, Obama said that intelligence agencies “will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments – as opposed to ordinary citizens
– around the world” as this is the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does.
The response was mixed; Wikileaks’ Julian Assange said that Edward Snowden “will be quite happy that there is at least 45 minutes of the president speaking about these issues,” and that “obviously the internal mechanisms failed, this administration failed, NSA failed to hold itself accountable.”
Bruce Riedel, a former senior advisor to Obama, told Euronews that the President has set an example for others to follow. “I’d like to see other countries come out with an equivalent of the presidential document that says: here are the principles upon which my intelligence service is going to operate, that they are not going to discriminate against people, that they cannot collect intelligence for the purpose of assisting corporate interests or for stealing industrial secrets.”
Addressing this ongoing story has been a long time coming for the US Government, and planned changes for the NSA may appease a few, but a view from the top was long overdue. There are some unanswered questions in this story, but I suspect that the prolonged future of the NSA will still offend many who will continue to be suspicious of all of their actions.