Obama: NSA Surveillance Is Awesome and Also Awful and Um... Yeah. USA!

In response to the uproar over NSA spying allegations, President Obama called for modest reforms to federal data collection Friday in a long, complicated speech that tried to thread a difficult needle, appearing adequately patriotic and tough on terror while respecting Americans' civil liberties.

It was not clear that he succeeded. U.S. spooks "are not abusing authorities to read your private emails or listen to your phone calls," he said, but later added, "I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives, and open the door to more intrusive, bulk collection programs."

Obama sounded every bit like a law professor at the rostrum, or an appellate attorney approaching the bench, discussing wonky complexities and subtleties with a gloss that lent itself to few bite-able moments… and few clear answers for everyday Americans.

Here were some of POTUS' specific recommendations:

  • Keep the FBI's controversial "National Security Letters" program going, to subpoena data from the companies that collect it. But Obama assured listeners that he would make that and other intelligence processes more "transparent."
  • End the metadata-collection program "as it currently exists." What's that mean? In part: "Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three."
  • "I have directed that we take the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas." Those safeguards will be set by U.S. intelligence collectors and Attorney General Eric Holder.
  • "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."
  • Appoint a bunch of new senior officials in the State Department and White House to oversee privacy safeguards.
  • Open a blue-ribbon panel "to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy."

Further threading the needle, Obama acknowledged in his speech that much of his knowledge about the extent of the NSA's collection methods had come from the leaks by Edward Snowden, while still coming short of thanking or pardoning him.

"Given the fact of an open investigation, I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations," Obama said:

I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.

[Photo credit: AP]