Spying fixes offer small comfort

Guest Editorial
President Barack Obama has tried to assure the American people that the government respects their privacy. But the steps to rein in domestic spying he outlined Aug. 9 don’t put the public’s fears to rest.

Americans know the National Security Agency collects their phone records. They know the NSA conducts Internet surveillance. Most important, they know these things only because Eric Snowden leaked the information to the press.

It is worth noting the Obama administration devoted considerable time and effort to attacking Snowden as a traitor for exposing the government’s surveillance activities. That the president now proposes ways to rein in the NSA offers some promise, but skeptics ask why they weren’t already in place — and why masses of Americans must be watched.

The proposed reforms include:

Working with Congress to assign a lawyer responsible for advocating privacy rights at the secret proceedings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The creation of a panel of outsiders to assess the surveillance programs and come up with changes by the end of the year.

Strengthening the privacy protections of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the provision that permits the government to acquire the phone records of Americans.

With the exception of the surveillance programs’ review, the proposals add modest improvements without changing domestic spying. Even the independent review of the programs doesn’t guarantee they will change significantly, only that they will be examined.

Despite serious concerns about domestic surveillance programs the public knew nothing about, the president seems more interested in ensuring they remain intact with increased public support.

“It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said in the White House East Room. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”
Yes, the world is more dangerous today. If spying on millions of Americans is essential in the fight against our nation’s enemies, however, we ought to have some understanding of the game plan.

Obama’s proposed fixes fall short of that answer.