The New York Times said the following in an editorial:
Battered by weeks of criticism about surveillance abuses, President Barack Obama has embarked on a reassurance offensive. The spy programs have been used narrowly, he said on PBS’ “Charlie Rose” program Monday and have been effective in stopping several terror plots. He promised to press for more declassification of intelligence work, and he said he would energize a dormant civil liberties board. Despite all the existing oversight, he said, “the public may not fully know, and that can make the public kind of nervous, right?”
The president is right that many Americans are nervous about what they have recently learned, and his assurances will have to go much further to allay those fears. His promises lacked specificity, and some of his descriptions of domestic spy work verged on the misleading.
Obama said that no phone or Internet conversation can be monitored without a warrant from the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Asked whether that process should be more transparent, Obama responded with this astonishing statement: “It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court.”
Perhaps the court is transparent to him and the intelligence agencies, but it is utterly opaque to the public. All decisions by the court are top secret. The court has refused to release its interpretations of federal law, even in summary form, and without identifying details.
If the president is serious about declassifying some secrets, he should have said he would start with the court. And at the top of the list should be its opinion that broadened the Patriot Act to allow the collection of every phone record, a power that surprised even the Republican lawmakers who wrote the act. The opinion is the subject of a federal lawsuit, and the Obama administration has fought its release. Obama should publicly support a bill, sponsored by a bipartisan group of at least eight senators, that would require the court’s opinions to be made public.
The president acknowledged that the vast collection of call records “has enormous potential for abuse,” but he promised that it wasn’t being used to spy on innocent citizens. But, if that’s the case, why not promise to end the mass collection, acquiring records only in cases of suspicion? It doesn’t seem particularly effective as it is. At a hearing Tuesday, Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, said that 90 percent of the foiled terror plots were found through requests for Internet traffic, not through the call records.
Obama didn’t mention that he waited three years to name a full slate to the civil liberties board; Republicans delayed it by another year. The board is now up and running, but its recommendations won’t mean anything unless the president is willing to break free of the secretive intelligence world and stand for real transparency.
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