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NSA and Snowden Battle for Legitimacy

Tom Friedman gets at the core of the problem with President Obama’s proposal to appoint a “privacy advocate” to, in effect, argue against federal surveillance requests in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when he writes: “Considering the breadth of reforms that President Obama is now proposing to prevent privacy abuses in intelligence gathering, in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, Snowden deserves a chance to make a second impression — that he truly is a whistle-blower, not a traitor.”

It does indeed seem that Obama is granting legitimacy to Snowden by proposing reforms which implicitly concede that the NSA turncoat has a point–that there is something wrong with the surveillance programs currently carried out by the NSA under its existing authorities even though there is no evidence of abuses carried out by the agency. In this way Obama may be undermining the legitimacy of the programs in question instead of buttressing them.

On the other hand, one can make the case that Obama is only proposing cosmetic reforms that won’t change the underlying programs while shielding them from growing congressional criticism, which threatens to terminate them altogether.

I am willing to grant Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is trying to achieve the latter, but I fear his proposals for reform, however well-intentioned, will result in the former–the delegitimization of programs that in the past have enjoyed solid bipartisan support and that remain necessary to safeguard us against an al-Qaeda threat that, administration claims to the contrary, is not going away.


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