Other views: Obama is failing at test of an open government

  • Posted: Friday, May 16, 2014 12:01 a.m.

The publication of a new book on the revelations of NSA snooping by Edward Snowden and the arrival of the one-year anniversary of those disclosures this month combine to raise a question: How is the Obama administration doing on the related issues of transparency and stopping privacy invasions? Answer: Poorly.

The publication of “No Place to Hide” by Glenn Greenwald, whose reporting on the Snowden disclosures earned him a Pulitzer Prize, are a timely reminder that, one year after the world learned about the Orwellian capabilities of the National Security Agency – or NSA – there is still no law in place to protect Americans from the NSA’s reach.

Meanwhile, the president is taking steps to tighten the lid on secrecy and making it harder for reporters covering intelligence agencies to perform their jobs. A related issue: Administration efforts to safeguard the privacy of individuals from businesses and institutions are far from ideal.

NSA: One bit of good news is a legislative effort proposed by Obama to place limits on what the cyberspy agency can do. The bad news is that the proposed changes contained in the USA Freedom Act are modest, at best.

The first question is why Obama could not impose the limits on his own, given that the agency was operating under executive orders authorized by him and former President George W. Bush. Codifying restrictions in law is preferable, but that requires Congress to pass a law, which these days seems next to impossible.

The measure itself leaves a lot to be desired.

The NSA is banned from some systematic collection of data, but bulk records remains with the phone companies, NSA’s willing partners until the snooping scandal exploded. Specific records could only be obtained under court order if the act becomes law.

But that will provide little comfort if it means relying on the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that enabled NSA’s spying all along.

The reforms seem to refer only to phone records collected under the (misconstrued) authority of the Patriot Act under controversial Section 215. They do not include email, text messages and other forms of cyber-communication. In short, it leaves open too many loopholes and does not go far enough to stop abusive practices.

Privacy: Earlier this month, the administration proposed enhancing the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which involves private companies and providers with access to the digital content of individuals. One positive provision requires law-enforcement agencies to treat communications in cyberspace like letters, requiring court approval to gain access.

The unresolved issue is that consumers will remain unaware of who is collecting their data, for what purpose, and how that information is used.

Transparency: Last month, James R. Clapper, Jr., Obama’s director of national intelligence, issued a directive barring officials at 17 agencies from speaking to journalists about unclassified, intelligence-related topics without permission. Repeat, unclassified.

Violations would be treated like a breach in security.

This from a president who promised “the most transparent administration in history.” Given all this and Obama’s slow and incomplete response to the NSA disclosures, it suggests that he places little value on the privacy rights of Americans or on the right of the press to probe into the dark corners of the American government.

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