NSA limits: The president fails to give the nation assurance

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What Americans would like to have heard from President Barack Obama last Friday on National Security Agency spying on their personal communications was different from what they heard.

They would have liked to hear some credible assurances from the president that the privacy of their telephone, email and other communications will no longer be violated by some government snoop unless there was bona fide, court-overseen evidence that they were in contact with a person or group that posed a clear, immediate threat to the security of the United States.

Instead, all the president said was that he didn’t want the NSA to maintain a database of these records, he wanted the government to get a court order for each phone number it wants to check and he wanted to see an end to eavesdropping on leaders and governments of U.S. allies.

At this point, it isn’t clear, given the massive distrust on this subject, that Mr. Obama can give the public such assurances since making the changes is beyond his control. For one thing, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, felt free to lie to Congress in a public hearing last June when he said the NSA does not collect data on millions of Americans — yet he was not fired for having done so.

What the public got from Mr. Obama’s speech last week at the Justice Department was only an indication or acknowledgment that he is aware, as much as the president is allowed to be, of what the NSA and other agencies spying on Americans are actually doing.

His attempt to outline an agenda for reform of NSA activities is minimal and perhaps cosmetic, and it carries as much certitude as a New Year’s resolution. He will likely find it too difficult to make good on most of these reasonable first steps toward a correction, which is bad luck for Americans’ freedoms. He still has three years to get serious on the issue.

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