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Why the President's NSA Reforms Weren't as Sweeping as They Could've Been

As we've observed throughout this administration, and even during previous administrations, changes in the United States never happen overnight and change almost never gives us exactly what we want, especially if those demanding changes resort to flailing, unhinged screeching.
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Edward Snowden

President Obama's slate of National Security Agency and FISA Court reforms, which he announced in a speech on Friday (full video here), were exactly what I expected they would be: modest changes to a highly complex system which is not particularly easy to reform, especially using broad-stroke, sweeping measures.

It probably wasn't watched by most Americans, but it should've been, if for no other reason but to hear some actual history and reality about the upsides -- and downsides -- of America's intelligence agencies. This was a welcome breath of fresh air, given how the debate around NSA and Edward Snowden is increasingly resembling an InfoWars comment thread.

The address was also a lesson in political reality -- a reality which is mostly ignored by the Greenwald clique.

As we've observed throughout this administration, and even during previous administrations, changes in the United States never happen overnight and change almost never gives us exactly what we want, especially if those demanding changes resort to flailing, unhinged screeching.

Indeed, there are many things about NSA functionality that need to be reformed. Not to get too soupy about it, but it's always our duty as citizens composing a government "of the people" to make the system better and more effective. But as former NSA analyst and Naval War College professor John Schindler observed over the weekend, the manner in which the current debate came about ultimately delayed any serious reforms for many years to come.

The patient-zero of Glenn Greenwald's and Edward Snowden's failure: their basic lack of understanding of American politics.

If they'd been serious about making changes, and if they'd understood from the beginning how change occurs here, they would've turned the dial slowly and methodically with an eye on the big picture, the long view. Instead, the two primary voices in this effort ignorantly and indiscriminately blurted away, raising all kinds of hell, as if they could've successfully rolled back decades of national security policy by mocking the very people who'd otherwise be tasked with carrying out those changes.

One of the very basic rules of a negotiation, much less politics in any form, is to allow your opponent to save face; to not embarrass or force them to appear as if they're a weakened capitulator, crumbling to the incessant scolding of an activist ex-pat in Brazil and a defector in Moscow.

How would the White House or certain members of Congress have appeared, and what kind of precedent would it have set, if they had collectively reformed NSA to the complete satisfaction of whatever it is Greenwald and Snowden are demanding? Needless to say, that'll never happen because no one really knows what changes if any would suffice, nor would any sane politician in opposition to Greenwald and Snowden bend to their will considering the implacable, retaliatory way they've rubbed the administration's nose in shit since June.

So, predictably, Greenwald emerged on nearly every news network Friday, including Real Time with Bill Maher, to deride the president's NSA address as merely composed of empty, "cosmetic" gestures -- a PR stunt.

The president was never going to eliminate bulk collection of metadata or cut off overseas surveillance operations that serve to inform the administration's foreign policy, partly due to his personal views (right or wrong) on the efficacy of those operations, but also because it would've legitimized the manner and breadth with which Snowden and Greenwald performed their incendiary, Catch-Me-If-You-Can version of digital neo-journalism.

After the president's speech, The Huffington Post ran a banner headline with Snowden's photo that read: "VINDICATED." First of all, if the speech had literally vindicated Snowden's actions, Greenwald and his disciples wouldn't have been so furious about the so-called "cosmetic" nature of its content, as the reforms announced would've been more proportional to vastness and details of the leaks.

Secondly, if it vindicated anything, it vindicated how incorporating well-crafted reality-show drama and click-bait viral sensationalism into hard news reporting will stir up and retain more public attention than usual. The frightening and emerging danger of this style of journalism aside, this is precisely one of the reasons why, for example, the Greenwald/Snowden version of NSA's phone metadata collection story stuck to the wall this time when stories not flavored with the same melodrama and trans-Asiatic manhunt narrative failed to resonate in the past, back when, by the way, Snowden was still screaming in discussion forums about shooting off the balls of "whistleblowers."

It was Snowden's flight to Hong Kong, then to Moscow, along with the petulant, vindictive, finger-wagging style -- threats of a "dead man switch" and all -- with which Greenwald has comported himself on the global stage that made it nearly impossible for the White House and NSA to embrace any broader reforms.

Because, again, Greenwald and Snowden allowed zero room for the administration to save face. None. Regardless of what the president had announced, the hubristic reporting would've continued and the public shaming and over-the-top misinformation and hyperbole would've carried on -- after all, there's much at stake now considering a $250 million investment from Pierre Omidyar into Greenwald's brand. But if Snowden et al had approached this process with modest, colorless tact and integrity, and comported themselves as either serious negotiators or statesmen or true hard news journalists rather than antagonists seeking to shame, embarrass and undermine both the administration and our national security and counter-terrorism efforts, it's likely that the president's speech on Friday would've been very different.

It's politics 101. And they don't get it.