President Barack Obama’s much-heralded speech last week on reforms to U.S. spy practices began with a history lesson. The President reminded his American audience that the United States has long benefited from the practice of intelligence gathering, from the days of Paul Revere’s night watchmen to the post-9/11 world. He also reminded his international audience that all states spy for national advantage and security and gently chided international overreaction to such news.
But there was a personal dimension to the history lesson that made it unusual and gave us a glimpse into a leader who seems to have genuinely struggled with the insistent demands of national security and of civil-liberties protections. He spoke of how waking every day to an intelligence briefing brought home the reality of the threats the country faces and the need to remain vigilant. He also said that he often reminded himself that “I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. [Martin Luther] King, who were spied upon by their own government.”
The President is no Hamlet figure, worrying whether “to spy or not to spy.” For Mr. Obama, unlike some of his critics, that is manifestly not the question. Spying is a necessity for the United States, not just to protect itself from threats but to sustain a global responsibility as the world’s only intelligence superpower. Such a bold assertion might have been unnerving had it not been accompanied by all the signs that Mr. Obama realizes he has to make a sharp turn in U.S. spy practices, and to make it publicly.
Whether and when Mr. Obama might have felt the need for such a turn without Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks is a moot point. In last week’s speech, the President put his own hand to the wheel of change, while trying to bat Mr. Snowden’s away. He is under domestic and international pressure to do so, and no doubt dislikes having the giant U.S. telecommunications industry breathing down his neck, demanding he do something to save their reputations and global competitive advantage.
But to give Mr. Obama credit, he understands the key points – that the world of intelligence is changing, is being driven by technological advances, and is pursuing intelligence capabilities because it can, not necessarily because it must. To appreciate the dangers here, we need an older cultural metaphor than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Something more along the lines of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the pursuit of monstrous technological breakthroughs, no matter what the cost. In its 21st-century retelling, the Frankensteinian machine without a soul consists of super computers roaming through the globe’s communications searching for whispy digital trails of terrorists, spies, nuclear weapons proliferators, international criminals, cyber aggressors and the like.
With his speech, Mr. Obama has laid down principles for reforming U.S. spy activities, for controlling the signals intelligence version of Frankenstein’s monster. Some commentators, led by journalist Glenn Greenwald, have derided his efforts as little more than window-dressing. Others say the devil will be in the details, with many of these quite vague. But in fact, the devil is in the principles. As Washington Post intelligence expert David Ignatius put it, “If Obama can achieve the firmer legal and ethical grounding of surveillance activities, in the ways he outlined Friday, it will be one of the significant accomplishments of his presidency.”
The principles Mr. Obama enumerated come down to these: the need to exert political control over sensitive intelligence operations; to apply a cost-benefit analysis to spying; to avoid spying on one’s friends and allies; to corral secrecy; to increase transparency in order to restore public trust; to abjure industrial espionage; and to apply judicial oversight to intrusive intelligence gathering. He even added a pledge that the United States would seek ways to extend some privacy protections to citizens of other countries who might be subjected to U.S. surveillance.
What chance do these principles have? Mr. Obama’s faith is rooted in his political centrism and his rather optimistic notion that there is a natural convergence of values between those who understand the reality of threats and believe in intelligence as an important security tool, and those who embrace the defence of privacy and civil liberties. Such a “natural” convergence does not yet exist, nor has it been created in all the years since 9/11. Its construction will depend on sustaining and enriching the debate that has been launched by the unlikely Mr. Snowden.
Meanwhile, Canada should take note. We conduct the same surveillance practices, on a smaller scale, and we are a close partner of the National Security Agency. The big difference is that the United States is having a real debate about these practices, accompanied by real information and real policy decisions, and we are not.
Wesley Wark is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. In 2012, he authored a study for the federal Privacy Commissioner on electronic communications interception and privacy protections.