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Obama NSA Reforms Are “a Bouquet of Roses” to the Intelligence Agencies

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Michael Ratner: By portraying NSA surveillance as “patriotic,” President Obama ignores the violations of Americans’ constitutional rights.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner.

But before we go to Michael, I’m going to introduce a little clip from President Obama, who spoke on Friday, giving his new regulations. He suggests new limitations, he says, on the NSA’s surveillance activities. And here’s how he opened his speech.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the “The Sons of Liberty” was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere. At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots. Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms.


JAY: Now joining us from New York is Michael Ratner. Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He’s the U.S. attorney for Julian Assange. And he’s also a board member of The Real News Network.

Thanks very much for joining us, Michael.


JAY: So how did you respond, or how would you like to respond to President Obama?

RATNER: Well, I responded—my own—I sat there watching it really astounded, because I didn’t expect a lot, but I think we got almost nothing in terms of actually reining in what I call this national surveillance state.

And what was really amazing to me—you could tell it from the beginning—the clip you played, which is about the role of the Sons of Liberty and Paul Revere and the Revolution as spies, are essentially saying spies are our patriots, spies are our heroes, surveillance, as he goes on to say, surveillance is essentially freedom.

And so he’s reversing, really, the way I would have begun a speech, which is to say, we’re citizens, we’re Americans, we’re protected by a constitution. We have a right to privacy. We have a right to First Amendment associations. And that’s our core right. And yes, we may need to do surveillance for reasons, but we can’t interfere with the core rights.

So I knew from the beginning, when he starts by saying essentially Paul Revere, a spy, is a patriot, that this thing was going in a very bad direction. And if I had to characterize it in one way, it would be a bouquet of roses to the national security agencies and the intelligence agencies, which us normal citizens, normal people came in really for the short shrift of protection.

And as I said, it said very little that was positive. And when you go and look at what we are facing in the surveillance state—a billion phone calls a day, metadata taken—a statistic that came out yesterday or today: 200 million text messages a day are taken in by the NSA. A hundred thousand computers all over the world have bugs in them through a program called PRISM that can get into our internet and computers. So you have this vast surveillance apparatus.

And then you have a speech that basically lauds the people who are spies, talks about them really as, oh, they’re your neighbor, they don’t want to do anything wrong to you, they’re only out to protect you. And then he goes through the history of how important spies are. In the Civil War, the used balloons to look at the Confederate troops, in the Second World War what we did, against the Soviet Union what we did, etc., and on and on. So you know from that opening where Obama is going.

JAY: Well, his main point out of all that was now, after the Soviet Union was the great threat and we needed spies—he uses the word to defend us against aggression, in other words, picks up the whole Cold War narrative. But now he says the threat is this al-Qaeda types, terrorist types. And, I mean, you know, I mean, we’ve said on The Real News many times, and you end I have discussed this many times, much of or all of this threat is the product or to a large extent the product of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and other places. But that being said, there actually are, are there not, people out there that would—that see terrorism is a tactic and in some ways the only way to fight back against such an overwhelming American military. And they would, like, attack in the United States, one presumes, if they could get away with it. I mean, that much is real, don’t you think, that there actually is such a threat?

RATNER: You know, what was sad about what he said about 9/11 is that it was a lie. Basically, we had the information to be able to stop 9/11. What they didn’t do was put the information together. In other words, we had enough surveillance before 9/11 to stop 9/11, but they didn’t do it.

And the question you have to ask yourself are two: how does taking in a billion phone calls a day, every single American’s phone call, really help do that? And in fact, the judge, Judge Leon, who ruled that the program of the metadata collection was unconstitutional, said the government has not been able to show that they’ve been able to stop any imminent attack with this information, nor been able to show that the need for immediacy, in other words, without a court ordered warrant, is necessary. So he was throwing us, you know, in my view, just a lot of ways of scaring us. Oh, this big threat. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing, of course, you’d say about the big threat is what’s come out in a lot of the information from Ed Snowden and others is that a lot of this surveillance is not about keeping us safe, but it’s about two other things. One is about competitive advantages for U.S. businesses, with the US government knowing what other businesses are doing. We know that about the spying in Brazil on Petrobras, which is the Brazilian oil company, the Canadians spying on the mining companies, the taking in of the phone calls in France of businesses and political leaders. So it’s about business.

And it’s also, obviously, about finding out what even our allies are doing in terms of their politics.

It’s not about 9/11. It’s not about stopping terrorism. They could do a much more limited program if that’s what it was about.

So he tries to throw us, the scare, 9/11, which, of course, everybody’s sitting there, well, you know, 9/11, so what? He takes in all of our information. If it’ll start the next terrorist attack, let’s do it. But in fact what it does is it eliminates completely our First Amendment rights to association, our rights to privacy, both under international law as well as under our own law, our right to associate under international law, a right to have any kind of privacy on our own, whether it’s, you know, medical records, who we’re marrying, etc. [crosstalk]

JAY: Is there anything in his suggested reforms that you think’s any good?

RATNER: Well, let’s start with the reforms, because I think that’s—we want to get there. One, he starts with a lot of BS about oversight, transparency, kicks a bunch of it to Congress, all completely meaningless. And he starts on, let’s say—well, his main point when he started talking about the reforms was also interesting to me. He says, after he talks about all of, you know, the 9/11 and the patriots who were spies, then he says it’s not enough to trust us, the government. We have to put into place, laws, etc. So it’s not just us as the government, not enough to trust us.

But in fact, everything that he says, we’re going to have to trust the government, which we’ve shown that we can’t trust. So the first one, the big one, two big ones: national security letters. Those are the letters that the FBI can simply issue to your library, to your phone company, to your bank to get all of your records. We had hoped that there would be a judicial warrant requiring a national security letter. It’s not a small matter. There’s 50,000 of those a year. They’re secret. You can’t—you’re gagged when the business gets one. It’s a huge hole in all of our data and all of our records. Did they do anything about that? Zero. All he said was, after the fact, we’ll have to reveal more of the information about that. [incompr.] for national security letters. Terrible.

The second big thing, of course, is the metadata. What we’re talking about is the billion phone calls and all the data that’s caused a huge storm because of everything you can get from metadata. And on that issue he said, we’re going to continue to collect metadata. They’re going to continue to collect it. My view is they shouldn’t be collecting metadata at all, and the only way they can collect any data on my phone call or your phone call is with a judicial warrant. But no, they’re going to continue to collect it all.

The only two things he said was, we’re not sure where we’re going to store it, whether it’ll be stored in the federal government or outside or where, and that’s going to be kicked over to Congress.

And the one thing they said that people are planning is something good is it’ll require some kind of a judicial authority to begin to look into that metadata. Well, you know, what that’s telling me is you have this huge database that you’ve retained, that you’ve collected, that can be used at any time to find out who my associates are to the second, third, and fourth and fifth degree. But they’re not going to use it, except with the court. Well, as we go through this life in this country, I don’t know what the court procedures are going to be, I don’t know that we’re going to allow just one person to look at one phone number, or whether when the government has that kind of data and there’s anything serious that happens in this country, whether it’s serious union strike, it’s an Occupy Wall Street, or something, they will have the databases on every one of us. The demand should be and has been: get rid of the metadatabase. So the second thing is a failure. It’s a cosmetic—something on top of it. But it’s on top of a base. The judicial requirements are on top of a base that’s completely, completely corrupted.

The third reform that he was—talked about was the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And that—everything is secret. They’ve issued 35 opinions upholding the metadata and other kinds of surveillance, the 15 judges have done that. They never turn down any warrants, secret warrant requests, one in thousands, if that many. Secret court.

What does he suggest for that? He suggests, like, sort of a panel of advocates to argue for the civil liberties side. Again, kicks it over to Congress. When is that going to happen? You and I just don’t know.

And let me tell you what’s wrong with it. Yeah, sure, it’s good to have somebody in there arguing for civil liberties, but again, it’s on a corrupted base. If you have a law that allows the collection of metadata of all of us or wiretapping with a warrant, what good does it do to get someone in there arguing on privacy and civil liberties when it’s on top of basically a corrupt set of laws?

So look at those three things: national security letter, metadata, and the FISA court. None of them really any—none of them really with any significant protections for this vast surveillance system that we have. And finally, of course, he did mention Ed Snowden, Edward Snowden. And what he said about Edward Snowden, you know, was not something that I think is meant to give comfort to a man who has actually got us into this debate and actually, you know, took a heroic gesture in doing so.

JAY: Yeah. Michael, we’re going to play a clip of that right now. This is President Obama’s statement to Snowden. And here’s the clip.


JAY: I mean, it seems to me this is President Obama’s shot across the bow of anyone talking about amnesty that that’s not on. Go ahead, Michael.

RATNER: Yes. I mean, people weren’t sure he would mention Snowden, and he lied in saying that we’ve been considering reforms to the NSA before Ed Snowden. But he basically says, this is a—our system depends on secrecy. He’s giving methods to our adversary. It’s sensational what he did. And yes, I think that’s correct. I think it’s correct to say that Ed Snowden is not going to get amnesty or clemency anytime within the Obama administration.

So all in all, [incompr.] I was disappointed in the speech, you know, and that’s not strong enough. I knew—we knew we’d all be disappointed. We knew we’re living in a massive surveillance state, expected the speech to cover over some of the problems so that he would lessen the tension around the issue of massive government spying. Maybe this speech will have some of that effect. I think it wasn’t good enough to have that effect to stop the waters from roiling. People are giving it very, very low marks. It was not—it’s not a good speech, but it doesn’t go to any of the hearts of problem that we’re living in an incredible national security state, where everything we do, think, associate with is taken in by our government.

JAY: He didn’t deal at all with some of the points some of the NSA whistleblowers have raised recently. We interviewed William Binney, and he said that they actually have the technology (and Binney had actually proposed it before he left the NSA) where they could really isolate people of real suspicion. They have reason to believe so and so is involved in some kind of terrorist activities. They have ways to create interconnections of the phone calls that start with someone of real interest. And not only is this actually a way to exempt people who are innocent from this blanket surveillance and thus actually defend people’s constitutional rights, but it’s also way more effective. As you say said in the beginning, if you have too much data, as Binney said, if you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, you don’t want to make the haystack any bigger, which is what the current methods are, that the NSA’s actually rejected methods of more focused surveillance, because they really want everybody’s records.

RATNER: You know, the Binney is really smart on this. And, of course, he’s completely right. And that’s why you have to ask yourself what’s really going on here. Aren’t they really trying to build up a database on every single American, nothing to do it terrorism, a lot more to do with, ultimately, social control? It’s not—this is not about terrorism. This is—either it’s conscious social control, it’s an agency that’s gone wild. Obama’s been either—either feels the way the agencies do or he’s been captured by the agency. Obama’s really become in Nineteen Eighty-Four terms, you know, our big brother.

JAY: Yeah. And I think it’s—we shouldn’t forget there were days in the 19-teens where American citizens were deported. There were mass internments, including of American citizens during World War II. Let’s not forget McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee. I mean, it’s not like this is all some dystopian vision. There is some historical precedent for being concerned about this stuff.

RATNER: You Know, Paul, that’s right, and it’s not right that people should accept collection and retention of millions of records and simply put on top of it you can only look at them with a court order. Our government should not have billions of records on every single American.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thank you for having me, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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