On Friday, President Obama will announce a slate of reforms aimed at the National Security Agency's surveillance operations, as well as the FISA Court that oversees it. These changes are expected to be closely related to the recommendations published by the administration's NSA review panel last month.
From what we know now, the president will announce the following:
1) He'll reform bulk collection of metadata by limiting NSA's access to it. A source told The Washington Post that the president will say that "NSA’s bulk collection of phone data — which includes numbers dialed but not call content — is not something that the government should rely on except in limited circumstances."
2) He'll call for privacy measures to foreign intelligence gathering.
3) He'll create a public civil liberties advocate on the FISA Court as a counter-point to NSA requests.
But the president is wisely not planning to unilaterally turn over bulk collection to private sector corporations, as the panel had proposed. Instead, he's going to leave this in the hands of Congress to decide. I'll come back to this point.
At the time, the panel's recommendations were applauded by a practically giddy Glenn Greenwald and his supporters who believed the findings vindicated the national security leaks by Edward Snowden. Here's Glenn Greenwald on CNN after the recommendations were made public:
"It's extremely important especially in the wake of the federal court ruling earlier this week that found that the bulk collection program is unconstitutional or likely so, and now you have a panel of the White House's hand-picked advisors concluding that the program in its current form should stop, that it poses a serious danger to core liberties..."
But now that the president has decided to implement most of the panel's top shelf recommendations, including (and to repeat) limiting the bulk metadata program, which is arguably the Greenwald crowd's primary gripe, the president is evidently not changing anything. Literally nothing, says Greenwald.
The president is "keeping everything the same." Even though he's, you know, not.
And here's Greenwald's reaction to a rather misleading headline from Mother Jones:
Bashing the president for his oratory is the pundit equivalent of a stand-up comic telling airplane peanut jokes, but okay, we get it. Nevertheless, the president is doing nearly all of the things which Greenwald applauded last month, yet this also amounts to doing nothing.
Put another way, last month it was ebullient kudos when Greenwald said the "extremely important" panel recommended that "the program in its current form should stop," and now, when the president appears to be doing exactly that by reforming bulk metadata collection, Greenwald says the president's not changing anything.
Confused? I am.
But I'm definitely not surprised by the flip-flop. This is the brand of intellectual dishonesty we've observed from Greenwald even before June when the Snowden story began. Whether it's his misleading headlines and ledes, or wild exaggerations like the debunked "War on Whistleblowers" meme, Greenwald clearly slithers in whatever direction best suits his agenda, consistency be damned. I honest to God don't care how Greenwald comports himself -- whether he's a jerk or a bully or a saint -- but I'm definitely concerned that his readers are taking his hard news reporting at face value when he appears to have issues with accuracy, not to mention contempt for the basic textbook rules of journalism.
I also want to know why Greenwald applauded a report that included the privatization of bulk metadata storage, and why he's now angry that it's not going to happen -- at least not as a part of the president's reforms. To repeat, this is really the only big ticket item missing from the president's forthcoming reforms -- the only thing from the "extremely important" report that's now missing. And it's not even really missing, since the president is leaving it up to Congress.
And it's important to note that while many of the panel's recommendations were solid, to call for the privatization of metadata was astonishing, especially knowing that NSA could still access it with presumably a similar process it uses for its PRISM database.
To further sanction corporate data collection, when corporations already enjoy eerily unconstrained access to analyze, sell and distribute our private data to a degree far more invasive than anything NSA has ever done, is a very, very bad idea.
The lopsided focus on government surveillance (with, yes, its many layers of oversight) has distracted from a far more serious privacy concern: corporate surveillance without any oversight whatsoever. During a year-long span when surveillance was perhaps one of the most debated issues in the news, we're no closer to reining in corporations, many of which have compiled massive data clouds on all of us without warrants or oversight.
But on the government front, it's clear that no degree of NSA reformation will satisfy those who've constructed lucrative careers for themselves around the issue. After all, when you take the issue away, the clicks, book deals and revenue evaporates. So clearly nothing the president or Congress will do to balance liberty and security will be good enough for the Greenwald crowd.