News / Politics / Technology

Never Trust a Spy: Demystifying Obama’s NSA Reform Speech

Seven months after The Guardian and The Washington Post first broke stories based on top secret documents leaked by former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden, his disclosures have already been hailed as “the biggest intelligence leak in history.” Reports based on Snowden’s documents have been published at a steady clip by media outlets around the world  since they began in June, in an apparent blindside to Obama and the NSA. The US government has been in damage control ever since, prompting Obama to deliver a lengthy speech announcing minor spying reform on the 17th of last month. Using the text of this speech as a jumping off point, I’ll examine the underlying assumptions that drive US surveillance policy.

Obama and Snowden's images are juxtaposed by protestors in Ecuador, June 2013. Rallys in support of Snowden and critical of US spying have taken place around the world.

Obama and Snowden’s images are juxtaposed by protestors in Ecuador, June 2013. Rallys in support of Snowden and critical of US spying have taken place around the world.

Cloaked in the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, Obama paints a deceptive picture of the spies at the NSA. He presents government analysts as “patriots,” and  “Our friends and our neighbors” who form an integral part of the secretive apparatus Obama fondly calls the “intelligence community.” He takes up a  spirited defense of the government surveillance state in the name of fighting terrorists. In his own words:

“Intelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy… Yet there is an inevitable bias…among all of us who are responsible for national security, to collect more information about the world, not less.”

He defends the lack of transparency while at the same pointing to reforms that supposedly increase transparency. He defends the character of NSA analysts and other spooks while simultaneously implying that he’s reeling in their behavior (if not their capabilities, which are virtually limitless). He then lays a groundwork for his vision of a morally superior, paternalistic United States. A nation that has the whole world under surveillance for its own “safety”:

“My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution”

Which leads into an assertion of responsibility for the world’s safety:

“.. A number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world’s only superpower, that our intelligence capabilities are critical to meeting these responsibilities and that they themselves have relied on the information we obtained to protect their own people.

The message: Obama is your patriarch, your protector, and your threat analyst. The NSA spies for your safety. Internet surveillance is for the safety of everyone. NSA Analysts are your friends. Your neighbors. Patriots. Decent folks–

To hell with that. Obama is correct in heralding a “technological revolution,” but the revolution isn’t emancipatory–its the realization of a dystopian nightmare. A good example of this is the Xkeyscore program, a software tool used by the NSA, FBI, CIA and other spooks to search through internet communications.

This NSA slide on the Xkeyscore surveillance program uses red dots to illustrate points of penetration and data scooping

This NSA slide on the Xkeyscore surveillance program uses red dots to illustrate points of penetration and data scooping

Searches can narrow in on an email or IP address, unique hardware identifiers, or even a Facebook profile. Xkeyscore acts as a gateway program for government analysis of web visitations, browsing history, email content, metadata, and social networking chats.


Top secret NSA slides on the PRISM program, such as the one above, were leaked by Snowden to filmmaker Laura Potrias and journalist Glenn Greenwald and published by The Guardian and The Washington Post in June 2013.

But the government isn’t the only culprit here. The big tech companies have been under gag orders about the extent of their collaboration, until very recently when the restrictions were loosened slightly to allow disclosures of government requests in ranges of 1000. On February 3rd, The Guardian reported:

Tens of thousands of accounts associated with customers of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo have their data turned over to [The US] every six months as the result of secret court orders, the tech giants disclosed for the first time on Monday….In the most recent period for which data is available, January to June 2013 –Google gave the government the internet metadata of up to 999 customer accounts, and the content of communications from between 9,000 and 9,999 customers…Facebook disclosed that during the first half of 2013, it turned over content data from between 5000 and 5999 accounts – a rise of about 1000 from the previous six month period.

Meanwhile, the mass-collection of phone company data and metadata on NSA servers continues, despite being “sharply rebuked” by the US Privacy Board.

In an editorial published the same day as Obama’s speech, The New York Times summed up several of his proposed reforms as such:The president announced important new restrictions on the collection of information about ordinary Americans.” But doesn’t their implicit acceptance of the category “ordinary Americans” provide cover for  the politicians and spooks The Times is supposedly meant to critique?  I don’t desire an end to surveillance of just “ordinary Americans,” “citizens,” or “law-abiding folks.” I want an end to the surveillance and data-harvesting of all the world’s people, citizens of the US or not.

By accepting the notion of the “ordinary American” unchallenged (the subject deemed especially worthy of spying protections), The Times reveals their true class interest: maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the mechanisms of power. The Guardian‘s reportage on the findings of the US Privacy Board is illustrative of this:

Not only did the board conclude that the bulk surveillance was a threat to constitutional liberties, it could not find “a single instance” in which the program “made a concrete difference in the outcome of a terrorism investigation.”

“Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

So if the US government’s own review board could not find a “single instance” of mass phone data collection contributing to “the disruption of a terrorist attack,” why does Obama find it necessary to continue them, and why do so many accept at face value his claims that the surveillance programs keep the US safe?

Image from the Tartan program, a product of Ntrepid corporation. Used to map social networks of anarchists within the United States

Image from the Tartan program, a product of Ntrepid corporation. Used to map social networks of anarchists within the United States

In the age of austerity and worldwide unrest, the answer lies in what the government fears: not only terrorist attacks from abroad, but resistance within the country. The government has oiled the gears of its spying apparatus to anticipate unrest at home and analyze the online networks of subversives. Where resistance breaks out, new surveillance systems (and more police) are quickly ushered onto to the scene.

Much of this has already been well documented, such as the exposure of the Tartan program, used to map the social networks of anarchists and other rebels within the United States. Documents released by the FBI under Freedom of Information Act requests show the government targeted Occupy factions throughout the country for surveillance during the height of protests in 2011 and 2012.  Government repression of radicals is nothing new- the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, beginning in the 50s, worked to destroy radical networks throughout the country.

But the tools available to today’s spooks are an order of magnitude higher. Surveillance cameras loom over an increasingly larger part of public space that was once thought of as a commons. Social connections are intermeshed (or constructed!) with email accounts, cell phones, and online memberships and profiles. And according to a report from Wired supported by documents Snowden leaked, “the NSA has managed to thwart much of the encryption that protects telephone and online communication”. This has implications for the kinds of information you’d imagine is the most secure: think bank transactions, money orders, or anonymous donations.

None of this is to say that domestic surveillance is the primary focus of NSA activities- no doubt much of their energy goes into collecting intelligence abroad, as they vehemently insist is the case. But in the era of PRISM, Xkeyscore, and bulk collection of phone company metadata, it’s important to recognize that the US spying apparatus, from a technical standpoint, is fully capable of turning its lens to the domestic front at a moment’s notice.

Obama’s favored tactic is to wrap up the surveillance state in a bloody American flag: classic misdirection. But his poisonous commitment to antiquated ideas of American exceptionalism and US-as-world-policeman are more likely to bring attacks on this country than standing down and ending the War on Terror would.

Pakistan UAE Drones

Funeral for victims of US Drone Strike on Pakistan, 2010. Obama’s first term marked the beginning of a massive escalation in a one-sided drone war that has claimed the lives of thousands.

We can’t trust the government to keep us safe, and we certainly can’t trust Obama. Lets take care to remember that if Edward Snowden hadn’t leaked classified information, the President would still be refusing to acknowledge the existence of these surveillance programs, much less attempting to reform them. All of the actions he’s taken to “rein in” NSA spying are merely attempts to cover his own ass. Don’t let the politicians pull the wool over your eyes on this one.

All Obama quotes are taken from the transcript of his January 17th speech, available here.

For further reading on technology and surveillance from an antagonistic perspective, check out FireWorks: A Bay Area Anarchist Counter Information Project.


12 thoughts on “Never Trust a Spy: Demystifying Obama’s NSA Reform Speech

  1. President Obama does not believe that you have any rights. He, like all progressives, believe that what we in the free world call rights, are actually privileges granted by a benevolent government. They are not sacred, or granted to us by our creator, they are simply privileges that can be taken from us if we misbehave. That is how progressives think. You have the freedom of speech, so long as it does not talk badly about the democrat party. You have the freedom of religion, unless you are a Christian. You have the right to bear arms…. no you don’t you are too stupid to have guns, you can only have guns that you use for hunting… uh…. no guns are bad. You have the freedom from unlawful search and seizures, unless of course we decide you are a security risk, then your life is a treasure trove for us to ransack.

    Progressives are tyrants, and should never be trusted.

    • Obama’s worst crimes and policies have nothing to do with progressive ideology. You’re talking about freedom of speech for Republicans, and the “violated rights” of Christians, but ignoring the prison-industrial complex, the state murder of innocents here and abroad, exploitative capitalism. What about the freedom of speech of people who were put away in Guantanamo or killed by a drone for saying the wrong thing?

      You’re looking at this in a destructively partisan way. This isn’t about progressives, it’s about respect for human rights, and both major parties are sorely lacking.

  2. progressive policies are more than what most people think. progressivism makes a mockery of human rights. It puts the state in charge of making decisions for humans. progressivism ignores the individual in favor of the collective. It was a progressive who made it illegal to speak ill of World War I, it was a progressive who re-segregated the military. I could go on, but the point is that it comes as no surprise to me that a progressive like President Obama would trample all over our rights.

    • But again you’re using examples that I’m not convinced are endemic to progressivism. Slavery was such a mighty force in the US that there’s absolutely no way a conservative would have maintained an integrated army. Censoring dissent is an authoritarian move, and has little to do with progressive/conservative. We live in an authoritarian country, regardless of which party is in power.

        • I wasn’t aware of Woodrow Wilson’s policies, but it also doesn’t really matter. Racism is not progressive in the least. Simply because segregation restricts personal freedoms doesn’t make it “progressive.” Anti-racist measures restrict personal freedoms, too; it doesn’t make any sense to use that metric to name something “progressive.”

          • I am not claiming that racism is only a progressive trait, it is an unfortunate human trait. What I am saying is that human rights violations come as no surprise to me from a progressive because their views on the role of government lend themselves to such abuses.

            • Except everything that Obama is doing now was being done by Bush, and presidents before him, for as long as we’ve had the technology, and for as long as we’ve been an empire.

              • President Obama promised change, he promised he would be different, yet the only difference between him and his predecessors is the degree to which he is violating our rights. He promised that the action seen in the Bush Administration would stop, yet rather than stop them he just stepped on the accelerator.

                America has made some mistakes in the past, I am sorry that you cannot see the good in her past. We are no empire, but that is a discussion for another day.

            • Are you honestly surprised when anybody in power abuses it? A progressive may commit abuses more in keeping with their ideology, but there are no inalienable human rights under any form of American government. Big, authoritarian government is by its definition everything you’re claiming progressives to be. Progressives just have different politics from you.

              Look at your example of Christians being discriminated against. I assume you’re talking about recent rulings regarding gay marriage, anti-hate-speech laws, and so on. Letting those people do what they want leads to other abuses and the denial of rights from others. I wouldn’t say necessarily that I’m for stripping rights from bigots, but it’s not exactly honest to pretend like it was so great when those people were able to exercise their full first amendment rights, before the government stepped in.

              • You are right to say that there is a difference between my politics and those of a progressive. The biggest difference between a true conservative such as myself, and a progressive is our belief on the role of the government.

                When a problem arises a progressive and a conservative see two different solutions. A progressive believes that the solution to the problem is that the government has allowed the people too many privileges. A progressive believes that new government regulations, new rules, new mandates can force people to behave the way they want them to. A conservative believes in a limited government, so they try to address the problem from within the community itself. Does someone exist who is a pure conservative or pure progressive, probably not. People lean one way or the other.

                I myself strive to remain conservative. For example, I am not a fan of gay marriage. Does that mean that I think gays should not be allowed to be married, no. It means that I will not marry another man. The government does not have the power granted to it by the people, to limit who I can and cannot marry. That is a power that it stole for itself.

                Progressives try to use government to steer people, to change people, to manipulate people. Unfortunately by trying to protect some people, you damage others. We saw this in 2008 when the Community Reinvestment Act collapsed the mortgage industry. The government tried to help minorities and the poor get into houses, by mandating banks lend to them. What happened, the market collapsed on all of us.

                Another example would be the month of December. Christmas decorations go up, and the hate mongers come out. Suddenly the phrase “Merry Christmas” has become offensive. Why? Because progressives tell us it is rude.

                President Obama’s health insurance reform Obamacare, suddenly now the government has the right to dictate that a person must purchase health insurance that provides for items that violate their beliefs. We are told that standing up against this intrusion means we hate women. We are told that our religious rights do not trump a woman’s right to birth control and abortions. Here is a classic example of a progressive mandate dictating that one persons rights are greater than another. That woman does not have to work for, say Hobby Lobby. If they do not provide insurance that she wants, go somewhere else to work.

                WE the people have the power to stand up for the rights of others, and we should. The government is nothing but force. American government, a government of law, is not tyranny. A limited government, a government of law does provide for inalienable rights. WE the people have to ensure that those rights are protected. It is when we neglect our duties, that tyranny arises.

    • But Solomon Wong, don’t you GET IT? There are only two ways of looking at things! The progressive way or the conservative way! There isn’t any way it could be more complex than that!!

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