President Barack Obama is planning to break his long silence on US surveillance practices Friday with his response to the review group he created in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.
Obama should seize the opportunity created by this debate to overhaul US surveillance practices and establish real checks on the national security apparatus. That means ending indiscriminate collection of metadata, building in much stronger protections for the rights of foreigners abroad (under current rules, there are few limits on what calls or communications the US can look at and even fewer on what it can collect outside the country), and requiring increased transparency in decision-making about surveillance.
Some of these reforms require congressional action, but there are many steps the president's own review group recommended that he can adopt directly. These include ordering security agencies simply to cease the bulk metadata collection under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and to limit all surveillance of foreigners abroad only to what directly affects US national security–and not, for example, just US commercial interests overseas.
But initial reports suggest the president’s announcements will be much more timid, and that on many of the key issues he may just pass the buck to Congress. If true, that’s a huge loss, and disappointing coming from a former constitutional law professor who early in his term won the Nobel Peace Prize—not for what he had done yet, but because of the high hopes that he would bring a more principled, rights-respecting approach to governance.
The national security apparatus insists that they need secrecy and vast surveillance powers to protect the country from terrorism. But they have yet to explain how these powers and secrecy have made the US safer. There is no evidence that bulk surveillance has thwarted terrorist plots. Presumably, the people who pose the biggest national security threat would already be avoiding electronic communications, knowing they were likely and legitimate targets for surveillance.
Meanwhile, failure to reform carries huge costs. There’s the incalculable harm to the privacy rights of everyone whose communications the US is scooping up, with insufficient regard for whether they’re suspected of any wrongdoing. Journalists and others may reasonably fear sharing sensitive information electronically, and engage in self-censorship online. Organizations that work with dissidents, activists or opposition groups may hesitate to continue doing so unless they can speak face to face.
Unnecessary secrecy by definition stands in the way of healthy democratic debate. And inaction will only further tarnish the US’s already badly damaged global reputation on internet freedom.
The president did the right thing in setting up the review panel. But now he needs to use their recommendations as a starting point to redesign US surveillance programs to respect people’s rights and stand on the side of democratic values.
Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno is deputy US program director at Human Rights Watch.