The central piece of "reform" that President Barack Obama proposed in his January 14 speech relates to NSA's telephone metadata program—under which the NSA carries out a bulk collection of information about each and every telephone call in the U.S., such as what number was called and how long the call lasted.
The NSA has been able to pretty much search through this database at will, without a court order, and then hone in on specific information on a specific caller, track down the actual content of the calls, etc. They have been able to do three "hops" in this search: look at all the phone numbers that the original number has called or been called by, all numbers that those second set of numbers have been connected to, and then all numbers that the third set have been connected to.
In the speech, Obama said he had ordered an end to the bulk telephone metadata program "as it currently exists." But he clearly did not say that the actual collection of the metadata will stop. It will continue—with the records perhaps kept not by NSA itself but either by the telecom companies or by some "third party" and accessible to the NSA. Obama said intelligence officials and his attorney general will come up with a specific plan for this in March.
Obama also announced that the NSA will need to get an approval from the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court before conducting searches into the phone metadata. This is the secret court that has approved almost every request brought before it by the government for spying operations.
And Obama said that the searches of phone metadata will be restricted to two "hops" from the original number from the current three—which still means that each search of a specific "seed number" could involve the phone numbers of many, many people coming under government scrutiny.
What all this means is that the collection of information on all phone calls in the U.S. will go on, with a few restrictions.
As for the massive spying the U.S. conducts around the world, Obama announced that he had issued a presidential directive making clear that such surveillance is "for legitimate national security purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary folks" and to extend certain "safeguards" to people overseas. But the speech was very vague on what those "safeguards" are—and it will be up to the U.S. government to determine what constitutes "legitimate national security purposes" that call for spying operations, including on "ordinary folk." Obama put all this in the framework of protecting people's "safety"—but the reality is that the "national security" Obama talks about means whatever the capitalist-imperialist ruling class deems necessary to protect and pursue their global interests. As we get into in the main article on the NSA spying in this issue, the interests of the rulers are NOT the interests of the great majority of people in this country and around the world.
On the matter of the NSA spying on heads of state of other countries, Obama said that "unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and governments of our close friends and allies." Again, it's the U.S. government that will decide what is a "compelling national security purpose." There is a not-too-veiled threat here—that if you're not among the "close friends and allies," or if you act in any way that cuts against what the U.S. rulers perceive as their interests, then your phone calls and emails will be targeted by the NSA snoops.
Obama's "reform" on the FISA court, which has conducted its proceedings in total secrecy, consisted of authorizing a non-government panel of "advocates" to provide an "independent voice" before the court—not in every case, but just in "significant" cases, with these advocates themselves apparently not having a say in deciding which those cases are. This is merely a fig leaf of "openness" for this spy court that will continue to operate mainly in secret, with people who are targets of the NSA and other surveillance activities (or anyone else in the public at large) still having no say in, or even knowledge of, what's going on.
Obama also spoke about the National Security Letters—which the FBI uses, without having to go to a judge to get approval, to force telecom, banks or other businesses to turn over records on their customers, like financial transactions or data on phone and email communications, while making it illegal for the recipients of those letters to even talk about them. So the targets of these "investigations"—which do not have to meet any legal requirements against unreasonable searches and other supposed constitutional guarantees—have no way of knowing they are under scrutiny. The FBI uses these National Security Letters tens of thousands of times a year. Obama refused to require judicial approval for these letters, while making a secondary change by announcing that the gag order on those who receive the letters (i.e., the telecom companies) will no longer be permanent but will expire after a period of time.
One major area that Obama did not address at all in the speech was what has been revealed by the Snowden exposures about NSA's major programs to develop "cyberwar" capabilities—such as exploiting flaws in computer programs to mount attacks against computer systems—as well as intense efforts to undermine or weaken encryption programs used by businesses and individuals to keep information on their computer systems private.
And there are various other aspects of NSA activities that have come to light that Obama did not speak about, such as recent reports in the German magazine Der Spiegel about an "elite" NSA unit called Tailored Access Operations whose methods include intercepting computers that have been bought by "targets" and secretly inserting software that enables the NSA to spy on or sabotage computers and computer systems.
Glenn Greenwald—investigative journalist who, along with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, was the first to receive and publish Edward Snowden's leaked NSA documents—wrote about Obama's speech: "The crux of this tactic is that U.S. political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are 'serious questions that have been raised.' They vow changes to fix the system and ensure that these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic 'reforms' so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge."
This article was published on revcom.us in the February 3, 2014 issue.