Congress Reacts to Obama's NSA Speech; Or, How Obama Didn't Convince Anybody

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 17 2014 1:55 PM

Congress Reacts to Obama's NSA Speech; Or, How Obama Didn't Convince Anybody

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Unconvinced.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

No one in politics would admit it if President Obama's NSA reform speech changed his mind. Who'd have the ego and judgment to win office, then be spun by 60 minutes of heavily lawyered and vetted speechifying? Nobody. This has lent a sort of predictability to the reactions to Obama's speech, starting with the people who've never doubted the program. 

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who's working to pass a version of the NSA restrictions that he almost passed in 2013, was unimpressed.

Nothing the President said today will end the unconstitutional invasion of Americans' privacy.

The President said he will not end the Patriot Act's Sec. 215 program that collects the records of every phone call every American makes. Instead, he said that the government will continue to search those records without a warrant—but just a little less vigorously.

The President said that when the government issues a subpoena to an Internet service provider for an American's records, the government still can impose a permanent gag order on the ISP—but just when the government "demonstrates a real need for further secrecy."

The President said that the era of secret law will continue, that the court decisions that have contorted Congress's limits on surveillance into broad authorizations will remain secret—but the intelligence officials who have executed mass surveillance and lied to Congress will, in their discretion, release some of the rulings as they see fit.
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Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who's building a civil suit against the NSA (via signups to his RAND PAC), kept himself in the NSA discussion by tweeting a photo of himself watching the speech. Like Amash, he reacted by stressing the need for an "aye" vote on his current legislation.

The Fourth Amendment requires an individualized warrant based on probable cause before the government can search phone records and e-mails. President Obama's announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration. I intend to continue the fight to restore Americans rights through my Fourth Amendment Restoration Act and my legal challenge against the NSA. The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house.

Smart of both men to talk about Congress's role. The speech had multiple audiences—an international audience that's now reading headlines about the NSA being "curbed," the national security state that has been demoralized for the better part of a year, and the left of the Democratic party, to name a few. If the White House pleased all three groups, it can afford to alienate a few powerful libertarians. Earlier this morning, actually, Democrats were passing around a clip from Paul's pre-speech appearance on Fox News' On the Record. The part they liked:

The danger to majority rule to him sort of thinking the majority voted for me now I'm the majority, I can do whatever I want and that there are no rules that restrain me. That's what gave us Jim Crow. That's what gave us the internment of the Japanese that the majority said you don't have individual rights and individual rights don't come by creator and not guaranteed by the constitution just whatever the majority wants.

That's an argument the White House is comfortable dismissing, as it tries to keep just enough members of Congress on the reservation to slow down or stop any legislative reforms to the spy programs.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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