Obama's Opaque Commitment to Transparency

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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At PresidentBarack Obama's news conference today, he pledged to strengthen oversight, transparency and constraints on the use of U.S. surveillance authority in the future. Too bad he coupled this pledge to a disingenuous attempt to rewrite the past.

Obama deserves some credit for recognizing that the grounds for debate on surveillance are shifting. He outlined four "specific steps...to move the debate forward": reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act which governs the collection of telephone records; giving civil liberties concerns an "independent voice" in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; increasing transparency by, among other things, releasing the legal rationale for the government's collection activities under Section 215; forming a high-level outside group to review surveillance technologies and their potential for abuse.

Really, though, only one of these steps is "specific": the release of the legal rationale in a white paper, which happened today. The rest, as welcome as they may be, are vague promises, predicated on "work with Congress" -- something that he hasn't had a lot of success with in recent months, or even years.

More disconcerting, though, was Obama's effort to make it seem that these efforts at reform had nothing to do with Edward Snowden's disclosures about the National Security Agency's programs, that instead there was an "orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms" that Snowden's crimes -- and let's remember, that's what they are -- had up-ended.

I must have missed the details of that "orderly and lawful process" in the May 23rd National Defense University speech to which Obama kept referring. It actually had ZERO discussion of surveillance reforms. Instead, it suggested that the only U.S. abuses had been in using torture, or detaining individuals unlawfully. To the extent that Obama's remarks that day proposed reforms, they covered the use of lethal force.

And consider Obama's feisty June 7 statement after Snowden's revelations first hit the fan. He spent most of his time talking about how surveillance programs had been approved by "your duly elected representatives" in Congress. As far as he was concerned, the matter was settled, and the programs were not in need of fixing. As he put it, "I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about."

So let's just wait and see what the details of these "specific steps" are. Obama's terse refusal, following his dutiful pledges about transparency, to discuss drone strikes in Yemen suggest his commitment may need a little reinforcement -- as does his decision to raise these matters in a newscycle-killing Friday press conference just before he splits on vacation and the capital shuts down.

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To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net