The Positive and Negative Sides of the President’s NSA Commission Report

Guess what? I agree with Glenn Greenwald on something. Specifically, I agree that, overall, the report issued Wednesday by the president’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies is a positive event in this ongoing NSA saga.

That said, I believe it’s positive for different reasons than Greenwald does, but there it is. He believes it’s positive because, as he said to the BBC, it’s a rebuke of the NSA’s surveillance operations and, like the Larry Klayman court decision earlier this week, it’s a vindication of Edward Snowden. On the other hand, I believe it’s positive because it’s an important step toward having a rational, reasonable debate about how exactly to reform NSA and the FISA Court (FISC).

First of all, what exactly is in the report?

The commission, which includes Richard Clarke, Cass Sunstein and the former deputy director of the CIA Michael J. Morell, recommended the following steps, among others:

–Congress and the president should strengthen the background check system to prevent another Snowden-style leak, as well as to move the system back within the federal government. Positive, though predictable, news.

–The NSA director should become a Senate-confirmed post, and, preferably a civilian. Not a terrible idea.

–A “Privacy Czar” position should be established as part of the White House staff. Okay, not bad, though the Republicans will totally love the idea of another “czar.”

–A public advocate should be present during FISC deliberations. Again, fine, but will this idea trickle out to all courts and for all law enforcement requests for search warrants, since, at this point, such a post doesn’t exist anywhere in a similar context?

–The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversigh Board (PCLOB) should be replaced by the Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board (CLPP), which would enjoy broader oversight power. Sounds like a backstop for FISC. Oversight is good.

–The president should have to personally authorize eavesdropping on foreign leaders. Fine.

–And finally, but not least of all, the panel recommended that the notorious “bulk collection and storage” of phone metadata, based on Section 215 of FISA and revealed initially by USA Today would have to end.

It goes without saying that the Section 215 recommendation is a huge victory for Snowden and Greenwald who have successfully fooled a short-attention-span public into believing that they, in tandem, are solely responsible for revealing this program to the public. They weren’t. USA Today broke the story in 2006. It was indeed Snowden and Greenwald’s well-calculated addition of melodrama, hyperbole and sensationalism that resurrected the story.

Yes, I do believe there are problems with court-authorized bulk collection and storage of metadata, in so far as it’s not all that effective and therefore not necessary. But the fact that it’s happening with court and congressional oversight, and that the data is minimized, doesn’t freak me out. I’ve always been considerably more concerned with the very notion that corporations store and share all of this information in the first place — and much, much more data that NSA never attains.

And that’s precisely why the following recommendation by the commission troubles me the most:

“We recommend that Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes.”

While Snowden disciples might see this as a satisfying “FACE!” to the wicked evil federal government, the commission is further enabling unaccountable, oversight-free corporate power to collect and store our personal data. It’s, in effect, further privatizing and expressly authorizing corporate data collection. Sure, corporations are already collecting and distributing information about us that’s light years beyond anything NSA has ever achieved in terms of volume and intimate details, but now the commission has called on Congress to further sanction that activity.

As we’ve observed, Greenwald has made a lucrative career out of condemning relatively (underscore “relatively”) moderate government operations while totally ignoring the egregious level of data collection being conducted by banks, retailers, credit rating agencies, ISPs, social media and even the sites upon which Greenwald and Snowden have published their so-called revelations. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the data collection and distribution by online payment services like Pierre Omidyar’s PayPal. The disparity not only further reveals a merger between the radicalized far-left and Ron Paul libertarianism, but it also highlights the observation that Greenwald, with a history of malicious lawsuits and the like, is simply using the NSA documents as another cudgel in his personal vendetta against the United States government.

Then again, polling appears to support Greenwald’s lopsided priorities. According to a new Gallup poll, 72 percent of respondents, including 56 percent of Democrats, said “big government” is the greatest threat to the U.S., while only 21 percent said it’s “big business.”

So, while we should probably be concerned about this specific recommendation from the panel, I think the report remains a positive development in the process of the overall debate. Whether it will translate into actual reforms is more problematic. I’m not sure that many lawmakers will want to attach themselves to legislation that shoehorns more speed-bumps into the intelligence community’s ability to thwart terrorism, especially when, following another potential attack, a lot of angry, shellshocked voters will loudly demand to know why it happened and who failed to prevent it. That’s not to say Congress shouldn’t do it — it should absolutely act on some of these recommendations; it’s simply one reason why it might not.

Bob Cesca is the host of the Bob Cesca Show podcast, a twice weekly political talk show. He’s also a contributor to Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.