In a brief statement during his weekly press conference, House Speaker John Boehner endorsed taking phone metadata collection away from the NSA over privacy concerns — but backed a bipartisan House bill, not President Obama's.
Boehner, like other congressional leaders, has to walk the tricky line between having signed off on the programs for years and now joining the growing chorus to reform them. At the same time, he can't make it look as though he and House Republicans are playing second fiddle to Obama in that effort, after reports about an Obama-led effort to end the metadata collection emerged. So Boehner's statement today was precisely tailored.
"I've long said these programs exist to save American lives, and they have," Boehner said at the beginning of his remarks. It's important to note the words Boehner uses here: by saying "these programs," he can more credibly follow with "they have." The phone metadata program at the heart of the current conversation — the ongoing collection of information about Americans' phone calls — has not been shown to have saved any lives. "While there are some valid privacy concerns," Boehner continued, "it would be irresponsible to end these programs before we have a credible alternative."
And Boehner thinks that alternative exists! It is not Obama's. "Yesterday we saw important progress toward that goal with bipartisan legislation introduced by [House Intelligence Committee] Chairman Rogers and ranking member Ruppersberger," Boehner said. "The bill represents the start of a bipartisan conversation about how we maintain our capabilities to thwart attacks while addressing privacy and civil liberty concerns that many Americans have." He said bipartisan one more time when talking about the NSA, because "bipartisan" means, in short, "not Obama's."
The proposal that Boehner praises, introduced by Republican Rep. Rogers of Michigan and Democratic Rep. Ruppersberger of California, has received mixed reviews. Trevor Timm, head of the Press Freedom Foundation, points out that both Rogers and Ruppersberger have long championed NSA surveillance. "As a general rule, whenever Mike Rogers ... claims a bill does something particular – like, say, protect your privacy – it's actually a fairly safe assumption that the opposite will end up true," Timm wrote at The Guardian. Timm and other activists fear that, as with a proposal from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the "reforms" will in fact make NSA surveillance more intractable.
The Rogers/Ruppersberger bill does, however, include moving that metadata out of government hands. Boehner noted that specifically in his comments: "I suspect that part of this effort will include the end of the government holding onto bulk data," again indicating that he hoped it could be done in a bipartisan fashion. Moving control of call data from the government to the private sector does seem likely. In fact, the AP reported on Wednesday that the Senate considered making that change even prior to the leaks from Edward Snowden. In part, that's likely due to the fact that the program has been ineffective.
Boehner's statement was another signal that NSA data collection will be changed. After all, both parties are now jockeying to be able to take the credit. That's what Washington is all about.