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Obama’s promise to curb NSA snooping fails to please critics

Analysis Curbing your enthusiasm
Mon Jan 20 2014, 12:06
President Obama gave a speech about NSA snooping on Friday

UNITED STATES PRESIDENT Barack Obama addressed the US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance issue on Friday, but did not give the snooping critics the answers that they were looking for.

Obama was speaking out about NSA snooping and the reaction to Edward Snowden's leaks about it. He said that there had been a need to increase the scale of snooping due an increase in threats and terrorism, but added that now, while he sees nothing wrong with what has been happening, some 40 changes will be made.

"Terrorists and the globalisation of the internet provided our security agencies with a greater challenge than before. We had to adapt to a world where a bomb could be built in a basement. We were shaken by the signs we had missed leading up to terrorist attacks. So we demanded that our intelligence community improved its capabilities," he said.

"It is hard to overstate the changes the US intelligence services had to undergo following 9/11. In our rush to respond to a very real set of threats, there was the risk of government overreach, and the risk that we'd lose some of our values."

However, he conceded that this has led to a communications dragnet, and accepted the need for reform. The NSA will reform, he said, but there is no need to thank Snowden, who exposed the NSA's practices.

"I'm not going to dwell on Mr Snowden's actions or his motivations, but our nation's success dwells in part of those trusted with our nation's secrets. If people disclose this information, we will not be able to keep our people safe, and these disclosures so far have often disclosed more heat than light," said the president.

"The task before us now is simply bigger than repairing the damage done, or preventing more disclosures. We need to make some important decisions.The threat of terrorism and cyber attacks will continue...

"The combination of increased digital information and powerful computers gives intelligence agencies the chance to sift through bulk data that may include impending threats. But the government collection and storage of this data also gives a potential for abuse."

That was not to say that the NSA has done anything wrong, and indeed Obama claimed that a recent review found that the agency had not broken the law. The president said that it does good, hard work in tough conditions.

"The NSA consistently follows protocols designed to protect innocent people," he added. "The men and women of the NSA know if there's another 9/11 or a massive cyber attack occurs, they will be asked why they failed to connect the dots."

Still, however, there will be changes afoot. Obama has approved a new directive for the intelligence agencies that will ensure a basic right to privacy. Also underway are plans to review any Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court opinions that have "broad privacy implications".

These reforms sound good, but in general the response to the President's soothing speech has not been particularly warm and critics have questioned his vague statements. Although Obama promised to end the collection of individual US citizens' records, these will still be collected by telecommunications companies, and while he will stop the surveillance of world leaders this is probably well overdue.

While Obama said that foreign leaders who are allies will be safe from prying eyes, the same cannot be said of other foreign nationals.

"Many countries, including those that feigned surprise following the Snowden revelations, are trying to penetrate our networks," said Obama. "Our agencies will continue to gather intelligence on foreign governments' intentions. We will not apologise for doing it better."

 

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