WASHINGTON (USATODAY.com) - President Obama will wade into treacherous waters Friday when he delivers his much-anticipated address on government surveillance. Already the knives are out on both sides.
Privacy activists worry that he won't go far enough to curtail government snooping. Conservative national security experts want him to reject all recommendations for change; a member of Obama's own review panel is expressing disappointment over reports that the president will reject one of the panel's key recommendations.
After spending much of the last month pondering 46 recommendations he received from a blue-chip panel he convened in the face of public outrage spurred by a series of revelations on government snooping by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, Obama seems intent on taking a middle path.
Obama's signaling of his preference to tweak rather than overhaul the NSA's controversial bulk data collection, which permits the agency to gather nearly every phone call made and received in the USA, is angering folks on both sides of the debate.
"We need to recognize the environment we face today is as dangerous if not more dangerous than we experienced in 2001," said former representative Pete Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan who joined a group of conservative national security experts calling on Obama to broadly reject the intelligence review panel's recommendations. "And in that type of environment intelligence is the tip of the spear to keep America safe."
Those calling for a broad overhaul say they fear Obama is kicking the can to Congress to legislate how the intelligence community operates. Proponents of tighter restrictions on the NSA fear Congress will be hesitant to push for sweeping action on a matter of national security without the president's backing.
The president's seeming hesitance to move too quickly or too far is shadowed by his own rhetoric as a senator warning that the intelligence community under George W. Bush was spreading its web too wide and invading the privacy of law-abiding Americans privacy.
In the midst of a tough presidential nomination fight, however, Obama voted for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendment Act of 2008, which gave NSA its broad authority that is under scrutiny today.
Activists pushing for Obama to embrace the review panel's recommendations say that the president, much like Bush did, risks alienating a broad cross-section of the American public that is furious after the Snowden revelations.
"If the reforms (Obama announces) are substantially cosmetic," said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a group pushing for greater restrictions on the NSA. "then he'll also be a target of the hundreds of thousands of people we hope to mobilize ... in order to press for him and other lawmakers to enact needed reform."
Recent polls show that Americans have complex views on the issue. In a Quinnipiac University poll published last week, 57% said the bulk data collection program was too much of an intrusion into Americans' privacy. But respondents were split on whether the program was necessary to keep the USA safe, with 48% to 46% saying it bolsters American security.
The White House offered scant hints of what the president might say in his speech, scheduled for 11 a.m. EST at the Justice Department.
On Thursday, Obama offered an update of the intelligence review to British Prime Minister David Cameron, an ally who has defended the U.S. spying programs - even as the leaders of Brazil and Germany expressed anger over revelations from Snowden's leaks of the U.S. spying on foreign leaders.
"(Obama) starts from the absolute commitment to maintaining the security of the American people, the security of our nation, of our men and women in uniform overseas, and our civilians serving overseas, as well as the commitments we have to our allies," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "He has also said that we can and should take steps to make the activities we engage in, in order to help keep America safe and Americans safe, more transparent, in order to give the public more confidence about the problems and the oversight of the programs.
Geoffrey Stone, a left-leaning University of Chicago law school professor who was one of the five members of the president's review panel, said Thursday at a forum in Washington that he was skeptical that the panel would end up producing such a sweeping report.
"The idea that (former CIA deputy director) Mike Morrell and I would agree on anything seemed completely implausible when this began," Stone joked at the forum hosted by the group Public Citizen.
Stone declined to speculate on what recommendations he expected Obama to accept. But he suggested dissatisfaction with reports that Obama has already decided to reject the review group's recommendation to give custody of bulk telephone data to the telecommunications firms.
"I will be disappointed if in fact the president does not call for the end of the government holding of the metadata," Stone said.