National Security

NSA Surveillance Will Change. Just Not Very Much.

Seeking a middle ground on surveillance, Obama pleases few.

In an expansive speech on Friday that covered the history of American surveillance from the ride of Paul Revere to the leaks of Edward Snowden, President Barack Obama sought to assure critics and supporters of the National Security Agency that he'd heard their concerns and would make historic changes to way America spies. But at a fundamental level, Obama showed that he's unwilling to dismantle or significantly curtail an apparatus of global surveillance that, he insisted, keeps Americans safe from terrorists, weapons proliferators, spies, and emerging threats in cyberspace.

Notably, the president's speech on Friday was the most spirited defense of the NSA he has offered since the first classified documents exposing its operations appeared in the press last June. "Laboring in obscurity, often unable to discuss their work even with family and friends, they know that if another 9/11 or massive cyber-attack occurs, they will be asked, by Congress and the media, why they failed to connect the dots," Obama said. "What sustains those who work at NSA through all these pressures is the knowledge that their professionalism and dedication play a central role in the defense of our nation."

In proposing a way to move past the scandals of the past seven months, Obama tried to thread a tricky needle. With regards to the collection of Americans' phone records, by far the most controversial of the programs Snowden revealed, Obama said the NSA itself will no longer be allowed to retain the so-called metadata. But the agency will still be allowed to access the records, which will be stored with a yet-to-be-determined organization. The agency will have to get permission from a court every time it wants to search the records -- which, to be sure, was an outcome that intelligence officials wanted to avoid, and represents a defeat for the NSA. But that permission will come from the same court that has approved of the legality and constitutionality of the phone records program every six months for the past seven years.

In a similar vein, the president took the unprecedented step of extending the privacy protections afforded to Americans who have their personal information collected by the NSA to foreigners as well. From now on, U.S. intelligence agencies will have to follow the same safeguards when disseminating and storing foreigners' communications and using their names in reports as they do with American citizens. But those rules, spelled out in a new presidential policy directive, don't cover the collection and analysis of foreigners' personal information. And it's that practice that has so disturbed individuals, technology companies, and leaders around the world, who have criticized the NSA for casting a vast surveillance net that collects and analyze the data of millions of innocent people.

When it comes to monitoring foreign leaders, Obama reacted to outrage from U.S. allies that the NSA had monitored the private communications of heads of government around the world, including German chancellor Angela Merkel. From now on, they'll be off limits. But their aides won't be. In a briefing with reporters, a senior administration official said that the leaders of U.S. "friends and allies" would no longer be surveillance targets, arguably a fungible and subjective category.

The White House may have had no choice but to concede that spying on the leaders of Germany and other U.S. allies cannot continue. "2003 is generally seen as a lowpoint in German-American relations," Philipp Missfelder, the foreign policy spokesman for Merkel's Christian Democrats, told Reuters this week, referring to strained relations between Germany and the United States over the invasion of Iraq. "But if you look at the current situation the loss of trust is not smaller than it was then. Indeed it's probably bigger because this issue is preoccupying people longer and more intensively than the invasion of Iraq."

Reactions among privacy and civil liberties groups to the president's proposals -- which largely ignored the 43 recommendations of a group of advisers -- were mixed. Some saw a small victory in the relocation of phone data to a third-party, even though most advocates had called on the president to suspend the program entirely. Others were pleased to see the United States extend some privacy protections to foreigners, but regretted that the president didn't pare back the the scale of data collection.

Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Obama's speech "outlined several developments which we welcome," including the appointment of legal counsel to appear before secret proceedings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and argue against the government's position on significant matters of law. "However, the president's decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans' data remains highly troubling," Romero said. "The president outlined a process to study the issue further and appears open to alternatives. But the president should end -- not mend -- the government's collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans' data."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut and a leading backer of surveillance reforms, said Obama was "stronger on principle than prescription."

"The president's reform blueprint, while bold and courageous, is a first step -- leaving a lot of work to be done," he said in a statement.

Jan-Phillip Albrecht, a member of the European Parliament who has been pushing for stricter privacy rules on European personal data that's given to the Americans, called Obama's plan "not sufficient at all." Albrecht told the Guardian, "The collection of foreigners' data will go on. There is almost nothing here for the Europeans. I see no further limitations in scope. There is nothing here that leads to a change of the situation."

For the White House, the speech was a high-profile attempt to tamp down a controversy that has been raging at home and abroad for months. As he did when addressing the Snowden leaks in a press conference last August, Obama sought to make Americans comfortable with surveillance in an age of rapid technological change that always seems to outpace law and regulations. "My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution," Obama said.

The president said that the national debate over surveillance, which Snowden ignited, had also led him to examine how the United States distinguishes itself from governments that use surveillance as a tool of oppression.

"It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard, and the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating. No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account," he said. "But let us remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity."

 

Getty Images News

Report

The Frenzy

Why is Western Europe hysterical over a swarm of criminal, scrounging immigrants that doesn’t actually exist?

From London to Berlin, the tabloids and right-wing press whipped themselves into a xenophobic frenzy as the end of 2013 neared. They warned of "swarms of immigrants," "soaring crime rates," a "swamped labor market," and "benefit tourism." Even government officials got in on the action: Lodewijk Asscher, the Dutch social affairs minister, issued a "Code Orange" alert -- a warning normally issued in the Netherlands, a country prone to flooding, when water levels reach dangerous heights. In the United Kingdom, there was talk of introducing "Olympic-style security" at airports. French President François Hollande and his Socialist government called for a "crackdown."

The cause of all the panic: On Jan. 1, 2014, migration restrictions imposed on Romania and Bulgaria by several Western European countries ended. After the two eastern states joined the European Union (E.U.) in 2007, these rules placed substantial limitations on the ability of Romanians and Bulgarians to emigrate for the purposes of work to Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Over the last decade, internal migration in the E.U. has become a highly contentious issue. The 2004 accession wave of 10 new member states, including several poorer Eastern European countries, prompted many people -- estimates vary in the low millions -- to move west, seeking to take advantage of better standards of living, employment opportunities, and welfare and health care provisions.

The United Kingdom in particular was affected, as one of only three countries that did not impose any migration controls. Between 2004 and 2011, more than 650,000 people arrived from so-called A8 accession countries -- Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, among others -- in the United Kingdom, a figure that far exceeded the government's predictions. It was these sorts of numbers, combined with the E.U.'s economic downturn and long-standing concerns about immigrant populations, that stoked xenophobia. Ultimately, they prompted the migration restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania -- countries where more than 40 percent of people live at risk of dipping below the poverty line and minimum wages stand at a paltry $1.22 and $1.46, respectively. 

"The expansion of the E.U.'s borders in recent years means there is a much bigger disparity between countries now in comparison to when the European project started out," says Chris Howarth, a senior policy analyst at the London-based think tank Open Europe. "Migration is now the No. 1 concern for the public when polling about European Union membership and accession."

But the realities of European migration are far more nuanced than recent hysteria suggests. Indeed, there are misconceptions about the actual number of people letting legal restrictions dictate their movement, the true impact migration has had on the E.U.'s older states, and even how those on the other side -- that is, back in states like Bulgaria and Romania -- feel about the trend of fellow citizens moving abroad for work.

Before Jan. 1, estimates of the number of Romanian and Bulgarians predicted to head west varied massively. In the United Kingdom, for example, figures produced by think tanks ranged from 50,000 to a whopping 385,000 arrivals annually. Top-end guesstimates were used by fear-mongers to back up their arguments, including calls for policies to discourage new migrants. In December, Britain's center-right Conservative Party pushed controversial legislation through Parliament to limit new migrants' access to government benefits and health care and to enforce integration through measures such as compulsory language-learning certificates. The new rules also enable non-nationals caught living on the streets or begging to be immediately deported. Governments in Germany, the Netherlands, and France are also debating introducing similar measures.

Now, more than two weeks into 2014, the predicted flood of migrants has turned out to be more of a trickle. Warnings by British newspaper the Daily Mail that budget airline flights from Bucharest and Sofia to London in the first week of 2014 were "double booked" and bus tickets were "sold out" turned out to be palpably untrue. Meanwhile, Ion Jinga, the Romanian ambassador to the United Kingdom, says figures provided to him by Dutch authorities show that, 10 days into the year, only 21 Bulgarians and 10 Romanians registered as new arrivals in the country.

But while Europe's right wing may have won a victory by forcing anti-immigration measures onto policy agendas, economic and regional experts say that the small number of arrivals is better explained by long-term trends and market conditions than the "stay away" tough talk.

Labor controls have in fact been steadily relaxed in several parts of the E.U. over a number of years, explains Stefan Ralchev, director and policy analyst at the Institute for Regional and International Studies, a think tank in Sofia. "Most those who really wanted to leave [Romania and Bulgaria] have already been able to do so," he says. "This mass migration myth was always a balloon waiting to pop after January 2014."

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 3.5 million Romanians -- approximately one-sixth of the total population -- are already working abroad, mainly in E.U. countries. For many, the destination of choice has not been Western Europe, but the geographically closer southern region, where several countries virtually eliminated restrictions for migrants well before 2014. In Spain and Italy, for example, around 1.9 million migrants from Bulgaria and Romania were already registered to work, and a further 1 million are estimated to travel to the two Mediterranean countries annually for seasonal employment.

Even in the Western E.U. states that imposed migration restrictions until this year, however, loopholes in the rules have long allowed skilled and self-employed workers to enter labor markets. The United Kingdom already had more than 150,000 Romanians and Bulgarians living inside its borders prior to Jan. 1; Germany had 200,000.

And despite what migration opponents suggest about Eastern Europeans scrounging for work and causing social problems, these populations have had actually aided host economies. Both the United Kingdom and Germany have a shortage of skilled labor in sectors like information technology (IT) and health care and thus stand to benefit from expansions in the available work force. Recent research by University College London found that newcomers from the European Economic Area stimulated the United Kingdom's economy over the 10-year period between 2001 and 2011, collectively paying 34 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits. Moreover, a study by the European Commission found that unemployed migrants make up only a small total of those receiving welfare in E.U. states.

Arguably, in fact, the exodus of the young and talented is more concerning for those back home than it is for Western states. "The brain drain already started taking place when Romania and Bulgaria joined the E.U. in 2007," says Marcela Ganea, an academic researcher at Bucharest University. "If you had a choice between being a doctor in Romania for €400 a month, or being a doctor in Western Europe for €3,000, what would you choose?"

In November 2013, Konstantin Dimitrov, Bulgaria's ambassador to the United Kingdom, told Channel 5 News that his country is being "hurt" by the loss of qualified professionals.

Despite these realities, the furor over economic migration is not likely to die down in Western Europe. On Jan. 7, a British Social Attitudes survey found that 77 percent of those polled were in favor of reducing the number of immigrants coming to the country. Meanwhile, the debate has sparked a major political argument in Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government divided over proposals to limit benefits to immigrants.

British MP and Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee Keith Vaz says that while the xenophobic rhetoric surrounding Jan. 1 is "very regrettable," migration is "an issue that E.U. governments urgently need to address" -- in no small part because the union keeps expanding, most recently into the Balkans. (Talking on the BBC's "Question Time" program on Jan. 10, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries warned of a possible future "tidal wave from Yugoslavia.")

"The public is concerned," Vaz says. "Jan. 1 is by no means the end. This is just the beginning of a much bigger, wider debate about the role and future of the E.U."

PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images