Obama’s changes to espionage tactics are long overdue

New restrictions, most notably the halt to the NSA’s bulk storage of Americans’ phone data, go some way towards correcting matters

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The changes President Obama announced yesterday in his government’s electronic surveillance programmes were long overdue, and ones that should not have required the revelations of Edward Snowden to bring about. By any reasonable standard, the data collection activities of the National Security Agency, the most vivid example of the bloated security state that has arisen in the US since the 9/11 attacks, have long been out of control. Had not Mr Snowden acted, they would have remained so.

Once upon a time, Mr Obama was an eloquent critic of many of the measures put in place by the Bush administration. In office, however, he has mostly maintained – and in some cases expanded – them. Existing oversight procedures were plainly inadequate, even without the obligation of secrecy imposed on the courts and congressional committees involved, and that has rendered the procedures virtually meaningless.

The new restrictions, most notably the halt to the NSA’s bulk storage of Americans’ phone data, go some way towards correcting matters. Inevitably, however, they are a balancing act between national security and the right to privacy – between the liberal instincts of a President who was formerly a constitutional lawyer and his constitutional duty to keep the country safe. As such, they are unlikely to satisfy either civil liberties advocates outraged by what has been happening, or the spy chiefs who insist that such unfettered intelligence gathering is why there have been no further successful terrorist attacks on US soil since 2001.

Espionage is, and always has been, a dirty but necessary business. But even if the NSA’s snooping has helped protect the country, that gain must be set against the damage inflicted both on America’s international reputation and on the commercial interests of the long-dominant US hi-tech companies. For these reasons and more, it is essential that yesterday’s changes are not merely cosmetic.

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