Obama signals no retreat in robust defence of his spies

President will not give up world-beating surveillance capability

Touted initially as a blueprint for fundamental reform of US intelligence, Barack Obama’s speech turned out to be a robust and slightly tetchy defence of the country’s spy agencies.

To turn Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar on its head, Mr Obama came to praise the worth of signals intelligence in the internet age, not to bury it.

Mr Obama acknowledged privacy concerns at home and the complaints of foreigners abroad over the dragnet-like sweeps of phone and internet information conducted by the National Security Agency.

But while he laid out measures to tighten oversight of the agencies and access to the phone metadata, the president made it clear in his 45-minute speech at the Department of Justice that the US would not give up its world-beating capabilities.

“We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies,” he said.

The speech painted many of America’s critics as either hypocrites, who complained in public about US intelligence while welcoming it in private, or geopolitical rivals with an interest in weakening Washington.

“No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programmes, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account,” he said.

“But let us remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity.”

In public, Mr Obama has shifted his position remarkably little in face of the torrent of often embarrassing revelations since Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, fled into exile in June, leaving a trail of leaks behind him.

In Berlin, just weeks later, Mr Obama said he was “confident” the US had struck the right balance between civil liberties and national security. Later, he would start to say he “welcomed” the debate about the reach of the agencies.

Some of the leaks hit home, notably the revelation the NSA had for years been tapping the mobile phone of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, even before she took office.

Ms Merkel was furious, and Mr Obama extended in his speech a promise he had already made to her, saying the leaders of friendly foreign governments would not be monitored, absent a “compelling national security purpose”.

Otherwise, Mr Obama made virtually no major concession to the NSA’s critics, painting the agencies’ staff as patriots whose omnivorous electronic surveillance efforts reflected only an appetite to do their job.

The NSA’s unique capabilities were “disquieting” and offered the “possibility” and “potential” for abuse, Mr Obama said, and imposed a special duty on the US to conduct rigorous oversight.

But the president insisted that the review he had initiated on coming to office to tighten the operations of the agencies had already put them on a sounder legal, and ethical, footing.

“Nothing that I have learned since then indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” he said.

Mr Obama had little to say in his speech about one of the most powerful constituencies damaged by the Snowden leaks – US tech giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft and Cisco.

Already facing suspicion and even hostility in key markets like Europe and China, the news that the NSA has forced US companies to hand over their records at home, tapped into their networks overseas and tried to compromise the security of their products has undermined their assurances of data protection.

The national security state, which has far more clout in Washington, will be much happier with the speech.

On the same day, January 17, in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower left office with a now famous speech warning against the acquisition of “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex”.

The defence and intelligence industries have expanded since the 9/11 attacks and remain essential to US global power. Since coming to office, Mr Obama has shown no inclination to reduce the clout they give him as president.

Mr Obama’s reforms, however, will be up for debate in a Congress in which a growing number of members in both parties are demanding the NSA’s wings be clipped.

Rand Paul, the Republican Kentucky senator and the standard bearer for the libertarian bloc in the party, said the Supreme Court would ultimately have to decide whether the metadata programme was constitutional.

“It is not about who is holding the information,” he told CNN. “I don’t want them collecting it at all.”

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