Why Obama’s Changes To The NSA Won’t Matter

The NSA revelations started out worrisome and have, over time, reached the point of ridiculousness. It can monitor your computer even if it’s not physically connected to the Internet. The system was absurdly abused by creepy stalkers. It was such a free-for-all that analysts tried to trick the NSA into letting them grind in World Of Warcraft on work time. But now it looks like the surveillance party is coming to an end. Except it won’t.

Obama is widely expected to order the NSA to go get a warrant when it wants records and set a standing order to destroy the data it collects that isn’t relevant to intelligence, according to Reuters. And that’s a good step, but it’s effectively meaningless because it doesn’t make what the NSA does illegal.

One of the bizarre spectacles long-time privacy advocates have watched as this has unfolded is politicians like James Sensenbrenner and Chuck Grassley freaking out over NSA spying. Those two are very voluble about how opposed they are to the NSA spying… and were, more than a decade ago, big fans of the Patriot Act. In fact, Sensenbrenner is largely the architect of that law and has been defending it as loudly as possible.

What Sensenbrenner is conveniently leaving out is that, when the Patriot Act was revealed, there were dozens of people, from code-breakers and intelligence officials to academics, who argued that giving the government sweeping new surveillance powers would inevitably be abused to collect and store information about Americans. In fact, if you actually read the Patriot Act, very little of it is actually directed at the foreign nationals ostensibly threatening our way of life. Title II is essentially about spying on American soil and how the government can make you go along with it whether you want to or not. Obama is undeniably at fault for the actions of his administration, but all of this was possible because of a law passed before Barack Obama was even a Senator.

You’ll notice that despite the GOP making very loud noises about how concerned they are about NSA spying, oddly, whenever a bill to maybe do something about this has been put together, it’s been voted down or otherwise stuck in procedural quicksand. A good way to sort political posturing from actual belief is to look at what laws are being passed, and the NSA clearly has bipartisan support in both houses, by that standard. Essentially what you’re seeing from both sides is little more than buck-passing, and Obama’s the one who isn’t up for reelection, so he’s the one taking care of it.

The NSA might be reeled in, but the Patriot Act shows no signs of going away, even as it’s been chipped away bit by bit in the courts. Obama renewed several provisions in 2011. Any attempt to repeal it is, again, bogged down in a procedural quagmire.

And until either the courts erode it completely, or it’s finally overturned, don’t expect this scandal to be the last one. After all, we don’t know what the FBI and CIA are up to, either.