At Press Conference on Surveillance, Obama Ignores Latest Snooping Revelations

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 9 2013 6:18 PM

At Press Conference on Surveillance, Obama Ignores Latest Snooping Revelations

President Barack Obama answers questions during a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 9, 2013.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

At a press conference on Friday, President Obama vowed to bring new surveillance reforms following recent disclosures about the NSA’s secret spy programs. But the commander-in-chief failed to address the latest snooping revelations, which have put the spotlight the extent of the government’s ability to sweep up Americans’ communications without a warrant.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the NSA was “searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance, according to intelligence officials.” This report was then compounded Friday by a new Guardian scoop claiming that the NSA “has a secret backdoor into its vast databases under a legal authority enabling it to search for U.S. citizens' email and phone calls without a warrant.”


There has been an avalanche of reports about the NSA in recent weeks. So many, in fact, that it has been hard to keep track at times. But the two stories from the Times and the Guardian are particularly noteworthy. They shed light on how a controversial 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is being used by NSA spies to mine through Americans’ data in a way that has not been publicly acknowledged by officials, who have been seeking to play down the extent of the NSA’s capabilities. The legal rationale illustrates how the NSA can feasibly use a system called XKEYSCORE, which stores masses of data that is apparently siphoned directly off of Internet networks, to “inadvertently” sift through Americans’ communications without a specific warrant. (It remains unclear whether the NSA is able to snoop on data lifted directly off of networks that is sent using SSL encryption over an HTTPS connection.)

In June, leaked secret rules exposed how the NSA could inadvertently gather information about Americans and store it on the vague grounds that the communications “are, or are reasonably believed likely to become, relevant to a current or future foreign intelligence requirement.” The NSA also has authority to pass these communications to other agencies, the rules showed, if they are believed to show evidence of a crime. An exclusive from Reuters on Wednesday revealed how this functions in practice, allowing the DEA to receive communications collected by the NSA. The drug agency can then use that information to initiate legal proceedings—and has been doing so while concealing the details from judges.

However, President Obama did not directly address any of these important issues at the news conference Friday, when he publicly addressed the mounting backlash over NSA surveillance. Obama made a significant commitment to reforming the section of the Patriot Act that has allowed a vast domestic phone records database, and he also vowed to bring in adversarial process to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which currently hears only the government’s side of the argument. But Obama did not address specific concerns about the 2008 FISA amendment, and he continues to play down revelations about the extent of the NSA’s ability to warrantlessly snoop on Americans’ communications, insisting that the government is only monitoring bad guys. “What you're not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs,” Obama said. He failed to mention that his administration is actively working to keep secret details about the abuse.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?