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Obama invokes history for context in surveillance reform speech

The president sought to provide context for why spying is needed, as he called for changes in government practices

By Zach Miners
January 17, 2014 03:41 PM ET

IDG News Service - President Barack Obama positioned his proposals for government surveillance reforms within the context of U.S. history to argue that spying is -- and always has been -- necessary.

"At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the "The Sons of Liberty" was established in Boston," Obama said to open his speech Friday. "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."

Before outlining his proposals, he also noted another bit of U.S. spying history related to the civil rights movement: "The challenge is getting the details right, and that is not simple. In fact, during the course of our review, I have often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own government."

These are some of the other comments from his speech that stood out:

-- "Across the political spectrum, Americans recognized [after 9/11] 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. 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. 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."

-- "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 in some of the most remote parts of the world, and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by their very nature, cannot be easily penetrated with spies or informants."

-- "The same technological advances that allow U.S. intelligence agencies to pinpoint an al Qaeda 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."

-- "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."

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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