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NSA scandal gets just one sentence in Obama's State of the Union

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Revelations that the National Security Agency collected millions of Americans' phone records was one of the top news stories of 2013, but one wouldn't know that listening to President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday.

In Obama's 65-minute-long, 6,778 word speech, he devoted a grand total of … one sentence to the NSA. Just 37 words.

“That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs – because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated,” Obama said.

That one sentence, however, prompted a quick response from the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

“The privacy of ordinary people is being violated everyday,” Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at CATO, said. “The Obama administration has defended secret programs in the NSA more vociferously and intensely than the Bush administration ever did.”

Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at Cato who has written extensively about the NSA surveillance programs, found Obama's sentence to be nothing more than rhetoric.

“There’s a real disconnect between some of this heartening rhetoric about getting off this permanent war footing and working with Congress to reform surveillance – and then the concrete policy reforms the president has been willing to embrace,” Sanchez said.

“[Obama’s] really rejected the conclusions of two expert panels that he appointed that found that, for example, bulk collection of American phone records is not necessary or even useful in the war on terror – and poses risks,” Sanchez added. “But we haven’t seen the president endorse any of the bills on the table that would really impose serious limits on that collection.”

Obama has proposed his own reforms to the NSA, but those reforms were merely smokescreens. For instance, he suggested requiring court approval before the NSA would be able to access Americans' phone records. But that requirement already exists. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court must approve the release of phone records.

Obama also no longer wants the federal government to collect those records, but he wants the phone companies to store them and give the government access whenever it wants.

Thankfully, Obama gave the American people one sentence to alleviate their continued skepticism of the NSA’s bulk collection programs and continue the debate about its reforms.

“The State of the Union speech is nothing if not an opportunity for a president to change the subject,” Harper said. “It would be incredible for him to say nothing about domestic NSA spying, but the short shrift he gave to the subject suggests that he doesn't actually welcome the debate.”

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