On January 17, 2014 US President Barack Obama gave a 40-minute speech at the Justice Department describing his plans to reshape the intelligence activities of National Security Agency and the whole intelligence community. 8 months have passed since the first revelations by Edward Snowden appeared – this period of time the President needed to prepare and meet the challenge. Hardly willingly, he had to react to the disclosures made public by Edward Snowden. The very fact he had to make the remarks, effectively as a result of the biggest intelligence leak, is remarkable. It shows that Barack Obama had to bow to the pressure exerted by international community opposing the ways the United States intelligence agencies conduct their activities. Though going to the bottom of it, the speech testifies to the fact that no drastic measures are to be taken to reshape the national intelligence system.
The President emphasized two key points. First, the intelligence gathering capabilities are based on technological edge achieved and there is each and every reason to take advantage of it. Second, no way is the process going to be stopped and there is no ground to believe the intelligence activities violate the US citizens’ rights in any way. The scrutiny of the speech makes believe that these are the only things of relevance for the United States administration.
The President has signed the 9-page Presidential Policy Directive on Signals Intelligence Activities. Actually there is nothing binding about it. Some provisions could be become parts of legal acts but it’s not a must. The document offers guidelines for intelligence gathering activities instead of a plan for overhauling the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection program to avoid violation of law in future.
It requires a real stretch of imagination to say the document addresses the problem. A whole page of the speech was devoted to high-flown statements that the United States «does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation or religious beliefs». It also states that, «We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies or U.S. commercial sectors». President Obama announced allegedly substantial overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) functions. What does it mean going into details? The president directed «the director of national intelligence, in consultation with the attorney general, to annually review for the purposes of declassification any future opinions of the court with «broad privacy implications» and to report to me and to Congress on these efforts». There are doubts it will be effectively implemented because the intelligence community interests are the top priority for Director of National Intelligence. As is known John Michael McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence during the days of Bush Jr. administration, was known to be one of the most active lobbyists calling for the overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – FISA. A person occupying this position will not apply efforts to bring his initiatives into public view. Even if some of them go to the President or Congress for consideration and approval, it does not mean common people, the citizens, will know about it.
Other changes are related to additional protections for activities conducted under Section 702, which allows the government to intercept the communications of foreign targets overseas who have information that’s important for US national security. The issue became especially acute after the Snowden’s disclosures. Specifically, the President asked the Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government’s ability to retain, search and use in criminal cases communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702. The Presidential Policy Directive itself contains no mention of the Section, it is mentioned only twice in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act is to be changed too. It is mainly related to metadata. The President said directly he finds this kind of activities expedient, so they will not be curtailed, although some kind of closer oversight is not excluded. The changes are to take place till the end of March, though, the way the President put it, and there is nothing more than just cosmetical changes that is in store.
Barack Obama is to take some steps aimed at enhancing other countries trust in the United States. The President is to direct the Director of National Intelligence and Attorney General to study the possibility of putting foreigners under the same legal protection rules the US citizens enjoy. «People around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security and takes their privacy concerns into account», The President said.
This applies to foreign leaders as well. Given the understandable attention this issue has received, the President has made clear to the intelligence community that – unless there is a compelling national security purpose – «we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies». And he immediately added, «While our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments – as opposed to ordinary citizens – around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation do, we will not apologize because our services may be more effective. But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners. The changes the President ordered do just that».
To support the work, the President has directed changes to how the government is organized. Senior officials are to be appointed at the White House and State Department to coordinate the activities of government agencies and providing guarantees for American citizens.
Summed up, it all up leads to the conclusion that the United States government is not going to curtail its intelligence programs. It believes that the existing technical capability provides a solid ground for their implementation. Nobody in the United States would oversee if the activities were too excessive going beyond the scope of missions the intelligence agencies are tasked with. The very same way the violations of other states legal acts or international law don’t bother the United States a bit – the government believes it has a right to do what it believes to be right according to the rule of the strongest.
Hardly is anybody convinced by the words about the US intelligence shying away from surveying foreign leaders, collecting enormous amount of data on the citizens of other countries or that the United States intelligence will face any constrains at all. The Presidential January 17 speech proved the point.
The governments of the countries, which cherish hopes to remain active world politics actors, should tackle seriously the problem of information sovereignty. The United States holds a dialogue only when faced by equal force, it ignores anyone it finds to be not strong enough. It strives to establish its supremacy in all commons, this time it is information space its efforts are focused on…