Analysis On Friday, President Obama gave his long-awaited speech on plans to reform the activities of the US intelligence services and how they monitor the rest of the world.
You can watch the entire speech here, but words are tricky things – never more so than when national security is involved. As such we've taken a transcript of the president's words and, given what we know about today's mass surveillance operations, tried to work out what was actually said. Prez Obama's speech is presented below in bold, with our annotations throughout.
First, a history lesson from the President
At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the "The Sons of Liberty" was established in Boston. And the group's members included Paul Revere. At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America's early Patriots.
It's fair to say that if the British had the capabilities of the NSA today, there wouldn’t have been an American revolution and the citizens of the North American continent would be sipping warm beer and spelling color with a 'u' along with the rest of Anglo-Saxon society.
The British wouldn't have needed to monitor content of the letters sent by Paul Revere and others, just tracked his movements, examined the metadata of his associates, and then swooped. Revere and others would have been up a tree with a hemp necktie for carrying out acts of terrorism against a national government, since these "Sons of Liberty" weren't above violence when it came to furthering their aims.
U.S. intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of checks and balances – with oversight from elected leaders, and protections for ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, totalitarian states like East Germany offered a cautionary tale of what could happen when vast, unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers, and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes.
The US has always had some checks and balances, to be sure. Whether or not they have always been followed, however, is another question entirely (see the history of J. Edgar Hoover for more details). If they had been, it's probable that Obama's Friday schedule would not have included this speech.
The Stasi example is also an unfortunate one to pick. The reports that the US was spying on not only its European friends, but also on the private phone lines of other governments' leaders, led to accusations that the NSA had taken a leaf out of the Stasi's playbook – and is doing a much more thorough job of it than the East Germans ever did.
How we got here
The horror of September 11th brought all these issues to the fore. Across the political spectrum, Americans recognized that we had to adapt to a world in which a bomb could be built in a basement, and our electric grid could be shut down by operators an ocean away. We were shaken by the signs we had missed leading up to the attacks – how the hijackers had made phone calls to known extremists and traveled to suspicious places. So we demanded that our intelligence community improve its capabilities, and that law enforcement change practices to focus more on preventing attacks before they happen than prosecuting terrorists after an attack.
The intelligence community did receive a drubbing in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, and there were serious failings, although elected politicians should also shoulder a fair measure of blame.
But the 9/11 Commission and others have pointed out that the information to detect the attacks was out there – the problem was that the intelligence agencies weren't sharing that data with each other. Since then, it seems, little has changed: two amateur teenagers were able to pull off the Boston Marathon bombing last year despite the massive collection facilities of the NSA.
Relationships with foreign intelligence services have expanded, and our capacity to repel cyber-attacks have been strengthened. And taken together, these efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives – not just here in the United States, but around the globe.
Intelligence certainly has saved lives, but the mass-monitoring program instituted hasn't had that much success.
When the Snowden scandal broke, General Keith Alexander claimed that more than 50 attacks had been stopped by his agency, in the US and overseas. This number has been steadily reduced as the months have progressed, and a detailed report from the nonprofit think tank New America Foundation found 17 plots had been stopped, and only one by the US spying on its own citizens.