President Obama's press conference pledge last Friday to enact changes to oversight of the NSA's surveillance system was noticeably similar to his speech in May outlining changes to government drone usage. A New York Times report on Monday indicates that the NSA press conference neatly coincided with a reversal on his drone proposals. In May, Obama suggested new limits on when the government could strike. In Yemen last week, those rules got more lax.
That May speech on drones, at the National Defense University, was the administration's first acknowledgement of its use of drones, and included information only recently declassified on past strikes. Clearly stemming from critique of the program, the president used the speech to outline how the military used drones as a tactic in the war against al Qaeda — which, he said, "is on a path to defeat" in in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "America does not take strikes to punish individuals," he argued, "we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people."
In an ancillary statement released to the media, the president explained how that process would change to better limit the use of drone strikes against targets.
First, there must be a legal basis for using lethal force, whether it is against a senior operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks.
Second, the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.
The list went on, including a range of other assurances, including that capture or "other reasonable alternatives" to the strikes didn't exist.
In the 24 hours before Obama spoke on Friday, the United States launched three strikes on targets in Yemen, killing at least a dozen people. The New York Times reports that those strikes used an expanded definition of a target in order to be carried out.
A senior American official said over the weekend that the most recent terrorist threat "expanded the scope of people we could go after" in Yemen.
"Before, we couldn't necessarily go after a driver for the organization; it'd have to be an operations director," said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate intelligence issues. "Now that driver becomes fair game because he's providing direct support to the plot."
The choice of words from the official is significant, particularly "couldn't." What the military (or CIA) once couldn't do in initiating a threat, it now can. Because, in practice, the rules changed in the direction of facilitating drone strikes. That was clearly not the impression the president gave in May.
Among the four changes to how the NSA conducts its surveillance that the president announced last week, none limited the ability of the agency to collect information outright. The two that might have that effect — reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act and external review of the processes — were presented without timelines. As the Times put it in a separate editorial, the proposals suggested that "all Mr. Obama is inclined to do is tweak these programs." Which was echoed in how Obama presented them: his proposals were a response to critique, not to an perceived ineffectiveness from their use to surveil terrorists.
In other words, those nebulous changes are meant to assuage concerns, not to actually change the processes with which people took issue — mirroring the proposals on drones. Once a situation arose in which the proposed drone policy required modification to expand their use, the administration appears to have done so. Offering skeptics plenty of justification for taking his new NSA proposals with quite a few grains of salt.