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The President Will Replace NSA Mass Surveillance With ... Something

Obama speaking about the National Security Agency from the U.S. Justice Department
Obama speaking about the National Security Agency from the U.S. Justice DepartmentPhotograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Obama says he will end the U.S. government’s practice of mass phone surveillance, “as it currently exists,” and eventually get it out of the business of mass data collection and storage. One question remains following the speech delivered Friday morning at the White House: How will he do this? It’s clear that even the president hasn’t figured this out.

As a mea culpa for the government’s overzealous surveillance techniques, the president’s speech was woefully lacking. He hit all the fuzzy themes guaranteed to drive critics batty. He offered a broad assurance that the National Security Agency isn’t interested in “ordinary folks” while also saying that NSA agents are just like the rest of us. He reminded the audience that private companies track online activity for advertising, and he insisted that collecting metadata is less threatening than listening to the content of calls. He even started his speech by saying that American intelligence collection has a long and noble history, going all the way back to Paul Revere surveilling the movements of the redcoats. (Ironically, the example of Revere undermines Obama’s assurances that collecting metadata isn’t that big a deal.)