Ted Rall: Obama NSA Speech Transcript, Deconstructed

Ted Rall desconstructs the Obama NSA speech. Point for point, here’s the Obama NSA speech transcript and Ted Rall’s commentary, aNewDomain exclusive.

aNewDomain.net FISK — On January 17, 2014, President Obama delivered what was billed as a major speech announcing changes to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) collection, storage and analysis of phone metadata and other digital communications by Americans and foreign citizens. Here’s the Obama NSA speech transcript — deconstructed by our Ted Rall. aNewDomain exclusive.

I fisked the Barack Obama NSA speech transcript, as you see below. This resulted in the following Obama NSA speech deconstructed text, which I’ve included and commented on below. Let’s jump right in. Starting with Obama’s opening remarks:

Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you so much, please have a seat. At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee, born out of the Sons of Liberty, was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere. At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early patriots. Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms.”

Right out the gate, Obama conflates the role of the establishment oppressor with that of the guerilla resistance. If Obama were intellectually true to this historical analogy, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are Revere and his fellow Patriots — outgunned and outmanned by the government, represented in 1775 by the British military. The NSA? They’d be on the British side.

Obama continues:

Throughout this evolution, we benefited from both our Constitution and our traditions of limited government. U.S. intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of checks and balances, with oversight from elected leaders and protections for ordinary citizens.”

Obama counts on Americans’ ignorance of history. Checks and balances were so few and weak as to be worthless; oversight so lax as to be nonexistent.

As USA Today pointed out, Cold War-era intelligence agencies including the FBI, CIA and NSA ran amok … “Flash back to programs created to deal with the “Red Menace” of the 1940s and ’50s. The rising threat of communism spurred the intelligence agencies to collect telegrams sent overseas by foreign embassies — a twist on an old form of spying. Telecom companies of the day acquiesced in what was known as Project Shamrock … Then, in 1956, the FBI initiated a program called Cointelpro — for Counterintelligence Program — to disrupt Communist Party activities in the United States. But by the 1960s, the programs had turned into lawless dragnets …

“The NSA was sucking up 150,000 telegrams a month, the vast majority of them sent by law-abiding Americans. Data were being traded among agencies. Meanwhile, the FBI was building dossiers on anyone that Director J. Edgar Hoover found suspicious, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. President Nixon created an enemies list and attempted to use the CIA to cover up the Watergate break-in.”

The FBI’s Co-intelpro goons even tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into committing suicide.

The President’s weasel words are worth pointing out. Obama said:

Meanwhile, totalitarian states like East Germany offered a cautionary tale of what could happen when vast unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes. In fact, even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance. In the 1960s government spied on civil rights leaders and critics of the Vietnam War. And probably in response to these revelations, additional laws were established in the 1970s to ensure that our intelligence capabilities could not be misused against our citizens. In the long twilight struggle against communism, we had been reminded that the very liberties that we sought to preserve could not be sacrificed at the altar of national security.”


First of all, the FBI and other intelligence agencies did more than “spy on” civil rights leaders and antiwar activists. They tried to kill them. Scratch “tried” — they shot them to death in their sleep.

And what’s with this word “probably?”

Obama seems to imply that the system reformed itself voluntarily. Not only is that demonstrably false, the “these revelations” about the abuses of the 1960s and 1970s came as the result of Edward Snowden-like whistleblowers — who similarly endured taunts of “treason” and threats of prison time for bringing these stories to light.

Continues Obama in the NSA speech:

Now, if the fall of the Soviet Union left America without a competing superpower, emerging threats from terrorist groups and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction place new and, in some ways, more complicated demands on our intelligence agencies. Globalization and the Internet made these threats more acute as technology erased borders and empowered individuals to project great violence as well as great good. Moreover, these new threats raised new legal and new policy questions, for while few doubted the legitimacy of spying on hostile states, our framework of laws was not fully adapted to prevent terrorist attacks by individuals acting on their own or acting in small ideological — ideologically driven groups on behalf of a foreign power.”

Notice the false equivalency between the Cold War and the War on Terror.

The series of proxy wars that defined the postwar ideological and economic rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States directly killed millions of people in the Koreas, Vietnam and countless other conflict zones. Citizens of both nations as well as their allied and client states lived, and still live, under constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

The cost to the global economy ran into the tens of trillions of dollars. Terrorism, on the other hand, is an insignificant threat in both economic and military terms. Between 12 and 15 Americans are killed annually in incidents defined as “terrorism” — significantly less than the number of motorists fatally injured in collisions with white-tail deer. Even the 9/11 attacks pale in any significance other than psycho-symbolic compared to the death toll in, say, car accidents or secondhand smoke.

The United States does not need a massive intelligence infrastructure in order to deter terrorist attacks. If it needs to indirectly employ millions of spies and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on espionage, the only logical purpose of such activities must be industrial espionage and/or monitoring and discouraging domestic political dissent. Obama said:

The horror of September 11th brought all these issues to the fore. Across the political spectrum, Americans recognized that we had to adapt to a world in which a bomb could be built in a basement and our electric grid could be shut down by operators an ocean away.”

Or, alternatively, we could simply not permit power plants to be connected to the Internet. Sorry, plant managers — pretend it’s 1990. No telecommuting for you. Or maybe the United States could stop firing the first shot in every new form of conflict, as we did with the Stuxnet attack on Iran — thus depriving our enemies of the moral justification to retaliate.

We were shaken by the signs we had missed leading up to the attacks, how the hijackers had made phone calls to known extremists and traveled to suspicious places.”

That’s not what happened. What happened was that interagency rivalries between the DIA, NSA, FBI and CIA had created bureaucratic redundancies that prevented intelligence leads from being communicated from left hand to right hand. And also: the whole point of asymmetric warfare, aka terrorism, is that it is carried out by state and non-state actors who turn their disadvantages of arms and funding into advantages of secrecy. The truth is, there is no way to stop terrorism. If the cost of stopping terrorism is this high — turning the United States into an authoritarian police state — we should stop trying to stop terrorism. Terrorism isn’t dangerous enough to pay this price to prevent it. (Not to mention, part of the reason the U.S. is a target of terrorism is that it is an authoritarian police state.)

It is hard to overstate the transformation America’s intelligence community had to go through after 9/11. Our agencies suddenly needed to do far more than the traditional mission of monitoring hostile powers and gathering information for policymakers. Instead, they were now asked to identify and target plotters is some of the most remote parts of the world and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by their very nature, could not be easily penetrated by spies or informants. So we demanded that our intelligence community improve its capabilities and that law enforcement change practices to focus more on preventing attacks before they happen than prosecuting terrorists after an attack.”

Who’s this “we?’ As I recall, many, many Americans responded to 9/11 by noting that the NSA and CIA had sucked up billions of dollars yet had failed to prevent the attacks. So why have them at all?

Also, the NSA can’t point to a single terrorist plot it has disrupted since it began listening to every American’s phone calls, reading our texts and emails, and so on. According to the government, the only NSA success between 2001 and 2013 is a 2010 case against four guys who tried to donate money to Al-Shabab, an Islamist guerilla army active in Somalia. Though Al-Shabab did carry out a spectacular attack against a mall in Kenya last year, there is no evidence that the group has any interest in going after targets in the United States or, for that matter, U.S. citizens abroad.

Today, new capabilities allow intelligence agencies to track who a terrorist is in contact with and follow the trail of his travel or his funding. New laws allow information to be collected and shared more quickly and effectively between federal agencies and state and local law enforcement. Relationships with foreign intelligence services have expanded and our capacity to repel cyber attacks have been strengthened. And taken together, these efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives — not just here in the United States, but around the globe.”

So you say. Yet you can’t point to a single example. Even if that last part were true — and again, there’s no evidence of that — is it really the NSA’s job to “save innocent lives around the globe” at the expense of our privacy and hundreds of billions of taxdollars?

And yet, in our rush to respond to a very real and novel set of threats, the risk of government overreach, the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security also became more pronounced. We saw in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 our government engage in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values.”

“Contradicted our values,” he says. Hmm.

So why did Obama refuse to investigate/prosecute Bush-era torture? “The president is focusing on looking forward,” said his then-press secretary about that refusal. Why did Obama visit the CIA in April 2009, to reassure the lead torture agency under Bush that they would face zero consequences for their numerous crimes, including murder?

As a senator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.”

Speaking of “adequate public debate,” what about now? Why weren’t there any civil libertarians, privacy experts or any individual to the left of Dick Cheney on Obama’s advisory panel on NSA reform?

Through a combination of action by the courts, increased congressional oversight and adjustments by the previous administration, some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I took office. But a variety of factors have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties.”

A standard Obamabot talking point: He’s better than Bush on freedom stuff.

Yet Obama massively expanded both the drone assassination program, which has killed thousands of innocent people yet not one documented genuine threat to the United States — and the NSA’s domestic spying programs.

First, the same technological advances that allow U.S. intelligence agencies to pinpoint an al-Qaida cell in Yemen or an email between two terrorists in the Sahel also mean that many routine communications around the world are within our reach. And at a time when more and more of our lives are digital, that prospect is disquieting for all of us.” 

What’s this “prospect” shit? Thanks to NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that the U.S. government is “reaching” our “routine communications.”

And Obama continues:

Second, the combination of increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats. It’s a powerful tool. But the government collection and storage of such bulk data also creates a potential for abuse.”

Potential? What’s this “potential” crap? The NSA already got caught spying on Americans’ sex lives for personal reasons in the so-called SEXINT scandal. And then, Obama continues with point No. 3 …

Third, the legal safeguards that restrict surveillance against U.S. persons without a warrant do not apply to foreign persons overseas. This is not unique to America; few, if any, spy agencies around the world constrain their activities beyond their own borders. And the whole point of intelligence is to obtain information that is not publicly available.”

Distraction. No one is complaining about NSA spying on foreigners.

The reason the Snowden files are so damning is that they prove that the United States is actively, intentionally vacuuming up every piece of digital data it can about every single American.

Concludes Obama:

For all these reasons, I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became president. I ordered that our programs be reviewed by my national security team and our lawyers.”

But he’s not bringing in anyone with an interest in curtailing, much less stopping these disgusting assaults on the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale, not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review and nothing that I have learned since indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.”

Ahem. SEXINT. Also, as the nonpartisan fact-checking outfit Publica documented: “At press conferences in June, August and December, Obama made assurances that two types of bulk surveillance had not been misused. In fact, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has reprimanded the NSA for abuses both in warrantless surveillance targeting people abroad, and in bulk domestic phone records collection. In 2011, the FISA Court found that for three years, the NSA had been collecting tens of thousands of domestic emails and other communications in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court ordered the NSA to do more to filter out those communications …

“In a footnote, Judge John D. Bates also chastised the NSA for repeatedly misleading the court about the extent of its surveillance. In 2009 – weeks after Obama took office – the court concluded the procedures designed to protect the privacy of American phone records had been “so frequently and systemically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall … regime has never functioned effectively.” The NSA told the court those violations were unintentional and a result of technological limitations. But the NSA’s own inspector general has also documented some “willful” abuses: About a dozen NSA employees have used government surveillance to spy on their lovers and exes, a practice reportedly called “LOVEINT.”

Sounds awfully fucking “cavalier” to me, Mr. President.

To the contrary, in an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported and failure can be catastrophic, the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails.”

This is, pardon my French, bullsheet. Here, for example, is a piece about how the NSA recorded 124.8 billion phone calls in just one month. Three billion of them were in the United States. And here’s one about how, in fact, the NSA does read your emails.

Says Obama:

Instead we have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections our ideals and our Constitution require. We need to do so not only because it is right but because the challenges posed by threats like terrorism and proliferation and cyberattacks are not going away any time soon.”

Or, maybe, it’s not really actually true that terrorism is something that should cause us to change our lives in any way.

They are going to continue to be a major problem. And for our intelligence community to be effective over the long haul, we must maintain the trust of the American people and people around the world.”

“Maintain?”Considering that international polls show that the United States is widely viewed as the worst threat to world peace, it’s a little late for that. Don’t you think? Obama warns:

This effort will not be completed overnight, and given the pace of technological change … we should (not) expect this to be the last time America has this debate. But I want the American people to know that the work has begun. Over the last six months I created an outside review group on intelligence and communications technologies to make recommendations for reform. I consulted with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by Congress. I’ve listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates and industry leaders. My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution. So before outlining specific changes that I’ve ordered, let me make a few broad observations that have emerged from this process. First, everyone who has looked at these problems, including skeptics of existing programs, recognizes that we have real enemies and threats and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them.”

Note that interesting phrase: “everyone who has looked at these problems.” Well, lots of people have looked at them. I’ve looked at them. Glenn Greenwald has looked at them. We don’t think the threat is anywhere close to what has been asserted, or that the intelligence agencies are doing a good job. What Obama, inside his D.C. bubble, means is “everyone I’ve talked to who has looked at these problems.” Which means “everyone I am willing to listen to,” which means “everyone I have asked,” which means “people who agree with me about just about everything.”

We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyberthreats without some capability to penetrate digital communications, whether it’s to unravel a terrorist plot, to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange, to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts. We are expected to protect the American people; that requires us to have capabilities in this field. Moreover, we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies. There is a reason why BlackBerrys and iPhones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room. We know that the intelligence services of other countries, including some who feigned surprise over the Snowden disclosures, are constantly probing our government and private sector networks and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations and intercept our emails and compromise our systems. We know that. Meanwhile, a number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world’s only superpower, that our intelligence capabilities are critical to meeting these responsibilities and that they themselves have relied on the information we obtained to protect their own people.”

Notice the red herring here. Very few people have suggested that the United States stop spying on foreign countries. Indeed, spying on foreigners is not controversial.

The point of the Snowden revelations, the reason he was moved to grab that data and go on the lam, is that the NSA’s charter prohibits it from spying on Americans — yet it does so to an astonishing extent. That’s the point, Mr. President. The U.S. spying.

Second, just as our civil libertarians recognized the need for robust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse as intelligence capabilities advance and more and more private information is digitized. After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors. They’re our friends and family. They’ve got electronic bank and medical records like everybody else. They have kids on Facebook and Instagram. And they know, more than most of us, the vulnerabilities to privacy that exist in a world where transactions are recorded and email and text and messages are stored and even our movements can increasingly be tracked through the GPS on our phones.”

I love this. It reminds me of those World War II propaganda posters attempting to humanize oppressors. “Trust the German soldier!” a poster in occupied France urged, depicting a rosy-cheeked French child in the arms of a Wehrmacht trooper.

You know, President Obama, everyone has friends and family. SS men had friends and family, too. If Nazi Germany were around today, their kids would be on Das Facebook. So fucking what? The point, Mr. President, is that I don’t want anyone — not you, not my friends, not some faceless bureaucrat, no one — reading my emails.

Third, there was a recognition by all who participated in these reviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data and use it for commercial purposes. That’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer and your smartphone periodically.”

Yeah, but Americans are creeped out by targeted advertising. If we could wish it away, we would. But the bigger issue is: No private corporation has ever rounded people up and sent them to concentration camps. Governments have done that — including the U.S. government. Apple and Google don’t fire Hellfire missiles at anyone. Oh, and although the consent is more tacit than voluntary, Americans allow private corporations to track them online.

We have never agreed to let the NSA read our stuff.

President Obama went on to delineate between 3 and 4 ways out of 46 possible recommendations that the NSA procedures for spying on the American people would be slightly adjusted. I had trouble getting past the following:

And this capability could also prove valuable in a crisis. For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to quickly review phone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort.”

Ah, a trip down memory lane. Just like 2002 all over again! Back then, Bush Administration hawks repeatedly trotted out the hoary “ticking time bomb in a major American city” meme — lifted directly out of the adventures of fictional super agent Jack Bauer in the series “24” — to justify torture, spying on Americans, and all sorts of post-9/11 abuses of power.

The “ticking time bomb” meme has been repeatedly debunked. It is not something that someone with a passing knowledge of the history of the last 20 years would cite.

From The Progressive, in 2006: “More than thirty years ago, the philosopher Michael Walzer, writing about the ancient problem of “dirty hands” for an obscure academic journal, Philosophy and Public Affairs, speculated about the morality of a politician “asked to authorize the torture of a captured rebel leader who knows the locality of a number of bombs hidden in apartment buildings around the city, set to go off within the next twenty-four hours.” [Emphasis added.] Even though he believes torture is “wrong, indeed abominable,” this moral politician orders the man tortured, “convinced that he must do so for the sake of the people who might otherwise die in the explosions.”

In all likelihood, Walzer’s writing would have remained unnoticed on page 167 of an unread journal if not for the tireless efforts of an academic acolyte, Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School. In newspaper op-eds and television appearances since 9/11, Dershowitz has transformed this fragmentary philosophical rumination into a full-blown case for torture by recounting a similar scenario which, often set in Times Square, “involves a captured terrorist who refuses to divulge information about the imminent use of weapons of mass destruction, such as a nuclear, chemical, or biological device, that are capable of killing and injuring thousands of civilians.”

From this hypothetical, Professor Dershowitz segues to the realm of reality: “If torture is, in fact, being used and/or would, in fact, be used in an actual ticking bomb terrorist case, would it be normatively better or worse to have such torture regulated by some kind of warrant?” Such a warrant, he tells us, would authorize interrogators to shove steel needles under Arab fingernails. Dershowitz assumes that his putative torture warrants “would reduce the incidence of abuses,” since high officials, operating on the record, would never authorize “methods of the kind shown in the Abu Ghraib photographs.”

It is not something that someone who is serious would say. It is not something that someone who respects the American people would use in a major speech about an important issue.

It is not something that anyone who is a patriotic American would think about.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.



  • A Great and thorough write up Ted Rall. Thank you. Thanks also to +Gina Smith for posting this to G+, and pointing us here.

  • Your analysis is excellent, Ted. I would add only one thing, with regard to your concluding remarks about torturing that fictional “captured terrorist”: Torture might indeed induce him to talk – but he wouldn’t necessarily reveal the true locations of those bombs. (Wild Goose Chase, perhaps?) :)

  • Good breakdown of his speech, thanks for sharing+Gina Smith via John Johnson on Google+