The Good News About Spying

Obama, the NSA, and the Future of Intelligence

The former monitoring base of the U.S. intelligence organization National Security Agency (NSA) in Bad Aibling, south of Munich, Germany on June 18, 2013. Michaela Rehle / Reuters

In 2013, the world was outraged to learn that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on private communications on a mass scale. Since then, a global movement to end mass surveillance has pressed U.S. President Barack Obama to tighten privacy laws and restore civil liberties that had been diminished since 9/11. To observers’ chagrin, however, dramatic revelations of NSA spying have kept coming. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that, as Americans have heard more about the NSA, 61 percent have become less confident that surveillance programs are serving the public interest. The lack of confidence is expressed by members of both political parties, but Republicans are especially likely to say that they are losing confidence.

Although rising public anger is welcome, it is misdirected. A fair examination of the Obama administration’s record over the last 18 months shows real accomplishments on surveillance reform. In sharp contrast to the inaction of Congress and U.S. courts, Obama has taken several meaningful steps to limit government surveillance and make surveillance policies more transparent.

Despite high hopes for a fresh start on civil liberties, during his first term in office, Obama ratified and even expanded the surveillance programs that began under former President George W. Bush. After NSA contractor Edward Snowden began revealing the agency’s spying programs to The Guardian in 2013, however, Obama responded with a clear change of direction. Without great fanfare, his administration has made changes that open up the practices of the United States intelligence community and protect privacy in the United States and beyond. The last year and a half has been the most significant period of reform for national security surveillance since Senator Frank Church led the charge against domestic spying in the late 1970s. 

In 2013, at Obama’s direction, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) established a website for the intelligence community, IC on the Record, where previously secret documents are posted for all to see. These are not decades-old files about

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