President Barack Obama discusses Ukraine during a meeting with members of his National Security Staff in the Oval Office, Feb. 28, 2014.
  • Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
  • President Barack Obama discusses Ukraine during a meeting with members of his National Security Staff in the Oval Office, Feb. 28, 2014.

Brendan Kiley already concisely dissected the New York Times story about President Obama's call to supposedly end NSA data collection in the Morning News. I'm inclined to disagree with Brendan's final verdict: I think the proposed reforms are more than cosmetic—and Glenn Greenwald* does say that if President Obama's proposals were to pass exactly as stated, the "plan could actually end the NSA’s bulk collection program." But how many of President Obama's proposals actually pass as originally proposed? This is a decent foundation for a discussion, but these kinds of discussions never end as optimistically as they begin.

This is, it must be said, a shitty situation from top to bottom. Obviously, if Edward Snowden hadn't revealed the NSA metadata collection program to the world, we very likely wouldn't be having this discussion right now. The spying would probably be continuing as it always has been, without our knowledge. And that fact automatically makes any proposal President Obama may offer appear to be disingenuous. Worse, this isn't a situation where compromises will work. A lot of Americans won't be happy unless the NSA unilaterally ceases spying on American citizens, which won't happen as long as the federal government exists. The government has never not spied on American citizens. They simply have more data available to them in a digital world than they've ever had before. There are no happy endings to be found here.

Worse, President Obama's proposals don't have the courage of convictions behind them. Personally, I don't believe that Obama is interested in stopping NSA metadata collection abuses. If that was his motivation, he would've done something about it years ago—before the American people even knew the program existed. I can only assume that President Obama long ago decided that these programs were essential for the safety of the American people. But if that's true, then does he believe this proposal will keep us equally safe? If so, why didn't he propose them years ago? If not, is he willing to bargain our safety for a modest bump in the polls? At its heart, I think this is a political move, an attempt to get Republicans to align themselves with the NSA in a midterm election year, so those Republcian candidates can't use these programs as a club against Democrats in the fall. Will it work? Who knows! Who cares?

This is not an issue you can resolve in a few paragraphs on Slog. Hell, this isn't an issue you can fix with a single proposal from a president. This is a fundamental disagreement in the relationship between the American government and the American people, and it's a disagreement where compromises won't be able to find any sort of a foothold. (How can you compromise when one side claims that the existence of secret courts is absolutely essential? You can't make a court half-secret.) The most likely ending to this scenario is not gratifying for either side: wiretapping and surveillance will likely become persistent political issues that both sides try to ignore when it occasionally pops up in the media, until the whole damn thing becomes a persistent and annoying buzz in the background of every phone call you ever make.

* This is a much smaller issue, but I was highly disappointed by Glenn Greenwald's post today, because he made it all about Glenn Greenwald. It's fine to attack Democrats for being wishy-washy when it comes to President Obama's questionable policies, but that shouldn't be the centerpiece of the first post about these proposals. There's plenty of time to call partisan hacks out as the partisan hacks that they are in the weeks to come. When your first post about this subject begins with an extremely long I-was-right victory lap about an unrelated issue, you're hurting your own cause.