Beyond ‘trust me’

President Obama proposes useful reforms for intelligence-gathering, but they’re only a start

At a news conference last week, President Obama said he'll work with Congress to strengthen oversight of some of the government's controversial surveillance programs.
At a news conference last week, President Obama said he'll work with Congress to strengthen oversight of some of the government's controversial surveillance programs.

When self-styled whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked details about U.S. government spying on American citizens, President Obama said he would “welcome” a national conversation about these surveillance programs.

The proposals the President has outlined to address Americans’ concerns about how intelligence gathering may affect their privacy usefully begins that conversation between government and governed — but no more than that. Stronger reforms remain necessary to rein in the national surveillance state.

Mr. Obama pledged late last week to work with Congress to impose “greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints” on the National Security Agency’s collection of data about every phone call Americans make. He did not provide details about what he will seek.

Nor did he address the rationale for the bulk collection of these domestic data to fight terrorism. The essential question remains: Why is the government gathering information about Americans who are not suspected of terrorist activity?

The President promised to shed more light on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a panel of federal judges that rules on the government’s applications to conduct surveillance operations aimed at preserving national security. In considering such cases, the court hears only from government officials, not from dissenting voices.

Mr. Obama proposed naming an “adversary” who would ensure that “civil liberties concerns have an independent voice in appropriate cases” before the surveillance court. But the court’s proceedings will remain secret. At the least, the court should release public summaries of its opinions, scrubbed of genuinely confidential information.

President Obama says that the NSA is hiring a “full-time civil liberties and privacy officer” and that the nation’s intelligence community is creating a Web site about what it does — again, without much detail. He said he would name a group of outside experts to review the nation’s surveillance technology and report back to him in two months on ways to prevent possible abuse.

All of these proposals are worthwhile as far as they go — but they don’t go far enough. Mr. Obama acknowledged: “It’s not enough for me, as President, to have confidence in these programs — the American people need to have confidence in them as well.”

But so far, the President is offering Americans not much more than “trust me” in protecting their rights to privacy. His assertion that his administration would have pursued reforms in surveillance programs without Mr. Snowden’s revelations invites skepticism.

Both liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans in Congress are raising important questions about the nation’s intelligence-gathering programs. Those efforts should continue, with the administration’s full participation.

The basis of the national conversation about surveillance should be a robust discussion of whether all of the phone and email data the government is gathering on Americans are not only legally obtained, but also truly essential to the war on terror. That’s a much broader debate than how to make the current programs somewhat more transparent.