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Live from Abu Dhabi Connect the World takes you on a journey across continents, investigating the stories that are changing our world.

Greenwald: Obama's reforms are cosmetic

January 18th, 2014
12:08 PM ET

Following a review he ordered after the Edward Snowden disclosures last summer, in a 45-minute speech yesterday US President Barack Obama unveiled new guidance for NSA intelligence-gathering.

Becky spoke to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who originally published Snowden's leaks, about his views on the reforms.

"I don't agree that the changes are substantial and I certainly don't agree that they're sweeping. There are certainly some reasonable and positive steps that he proposed, although those are quite vague, but the essence of the NSA system that has created such worldwide anger and debate, mainly that the NSA spies on hundreds of millions of people every day without even a whiff of suspicion that they've done something wrong will be preserved, even if all of President Obama's changes are implemented, and I think the changes are far more cosmetic and symbolic than they are substantive or sweeping."

"If you look at the controversy that has been triggered in the United States and around the world, and what that debate has been about, I think you'll find that very little of that is actually affected in a meaningful way by what President Obama has proposed... What has caused the controversy and the anger is the idea that we have a secret surveillance agency that every day collects hundreds of millions, in fact billions, of data points about people's telephone and email calls even though they're completely law-abiding and innocent, and he has not proposed to end any of that or really to stop that in a meaningful way. That will endure, and that's why the changes are more at the margin than the centre."

In his speech, President Obama outlined the reasoning behind the extent of NSA powers. He said that "if any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come."

Greenwald does not accept this rationale.

"Every single time there has been a report over the last fifty years that has disclosed that which American political leaders want to keep secret, going back to the Pentagon Papers, through the Bush era, disclosures over torture and rendition and abuses at Abu Ghraib, and all sorts of other abuses including NSA abuses, the US government says exactly the same thing, which is pretty much what Obama just said. 'Oh, national security has been endangered by bringing transparency to our government'. And there's never any evidence presented that it's true, and there's been no evidence presented here that it's true, the only thing that has been damaged by the disclosures is the reputation of American political officials like President Obama."

When Becky put it to him that the opposite is also true, that there is no evidence that national security hasn't been breached, Greenwald replied "I also can't prove to you that the NSA isn't controlled by Martians. The burden is on the government. If they want to come forward and say that national security has been damaged by these disclosures they have to present evidence that their claims are true. They have a history of making that claim only for it to turn out to be entirely false."

Text: Despite Obama's NSA changes, phone records still collected