Forget Transparency: Now Is The Time to End the NSA's Surveillance

On Friday, President Obama delivered a speech meant to answer Americans' concerns about NSA surveillance. Like most 50-minute speeches by major politicians, it amounts to 50 minutes of life we'll never get back, and little substance.

The take-away from the speech is that President Obama is "comfortable" with the surveillance program exactly as it already exists, and the "reforms," to the extent of which they will happen at all, center on his quote "how do I make the American people more comfortable."

In effect, this means a PR campaign to convince the public that what the NSA is doing is okay, and it is noteworthy that one of the major "reforms" announced was having the intelligence agencies make a website to sell the programs to the public.

It's not surprising, of course. President Obama knew what was going on, and was "comfortable" with it, and without the repeated leaks that so outraged him, the speech and the faux-reforms would never have happened.

It's only a sort of outdated decorum that the American public, after an outrage like this comes to light, is willing to give elected officials a first crack at offering fixes of their own. We should really know better -- history has shown time and again that people caught abusing their power answer with excuses, not change.

But we gave Obama the chance anyway, and that's over. His promises of slightly improved "transparency" are not a remotely sufficient answer to systematic surveillance of the American public's communications. We need to demand, not request but demand, real reforms. They need to focus on two major issues.

The first reform is to the FISA court system. If we didn't already have enough evidence that secret courts that operate behind closed doors was a bad idea, the fact that these surveillance schemes have been repeatedly rubber-stamped is the smoking gun. Every other court is able to grant warrants without relying on keeping the American public in the dark on everything they do, and that is the bare minimum we have to insist on.

The reason why secret courts are a bad idea is oversight. President Obama made glowing references to the "oversight" of the NSA surveillance program, but he's missing the point. Real oversight is not three branches of government getting together behind closed doors and deciding that what we don't know won't hurt them.

Real oversight needs to take place in public view, and that's why the other major reform we need is to end the secrecy that is the NSA's bread and butter. Intercepting specific communications authorized by real warrants granted by real courts with public accountability are one thing, secret courts granting secret permission to secret agencies to constantly track the communications of the entire human race is not remotely acceptable, and the secret legal rulings that made them nominally lawful are irrelevant.

The NSA's very existence was a secret for years, and from the moment its existence went public its history has been absolutely riddled with examples of abuse. The surveillance unveiled by Snowden's leaks isn't an aberration in an otherwise functional agency. Abusing privacy is what the NSA was built to do, they're quite good at it and that's why they cannot be permitted to exist as presently constituted in a free society. Reform in this case must mean wholesale cuts to such programs and to the structure that allowed them to be created in the first place.

Jason Ditz is news editor at, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.