President Barack Obama sought to give an even-handed speech on national security and intelligence-gathering on Friday. The United States has found itself in a position in which its enormous technological capabilities have come up against constitutional and moral limits. The people of the country want protection from terrorism, but they do not want, nor does the Constitution allow, a system of omnipresent surveillance by the state.
Mr. Obama, his administration and Congress face great challenges in balancing those competing goals. Some in Congress want the spying programs dramatically scaled back. Others would prefer that nothing much change. Rhetorically, the President tried to split the difference. And practically, he offered a lot of ambiguity about what exactly will change. Take one of the key issues of the speech: the bulk collection of signals intelligence, in which the "metadata" of phone calls – the equivalent of the words on the envelope of a letter, with the sender's information as well as the addressee's – can be dredged up in vast quantities, as if the National Security Agency were a gargantuan fishing trawler, dredging up information indiscriminately.
The President has undertaken to "end the bulk metadata program as it currently exists." That's the rhetoric. A closer look at the speech and the accompanying presidential policy directive shows that the program will continue to gather the same metadata. A hard question is how it will all be stored and secured; the phone companies don't want that job. So Mr. Obama is asking for more advice on this matter.
One clear change is that the government will only investigate phone calls that are at most two degrees of separation from a phone number linked to an alleged terrorist group; currently, the figure is three. As for looking back into the archive, the NSA can only put a query into the database if a judge grants a search warrant, or if there is a genuine emergency.
Another modest reform is the setting up of a panel of public advocates for the behind-closed-doors Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – where at present just one lawyer, speaking for the government, makes a case to the judge for a surveillance authorization. The prospect of a skeptical voice, something resembling a lawyer for the defence, is welcome.
The bottom line is that anyone hoping for the continuation of mass data collection, from millions of messages and phone calls, should be pleased. And critics of practices that seem to unnecessarily violate the privacy rights of millions should still be concerned, because these reforms only scratch the surface. We're in the second camp.