Barack Obama’s plan for restraining his spies is balanced but vagueBEFORE committing mass murder, one of the 9/11 hijackers made a call from San Diego to an al-Qaeda safe house in Yemen. At the time, the National Security Agency (NSA) had no way to tell that the call had come from America. Haunted by such lapses, successive governments have doubled the budget for intelligence in real terms since 2001, to $75 billion in 2012. At its peak, around three years ago, America was spending nearly twice as much on intelligence as it had during the cold war. Rather than write new laws to govern the use of this bounty, Congress relied largely on old ones, drawn up when the internet was an obscure government project.
In a long, professorial and rather good speech on January 17th, Barack Obama surveyed the past 250 years of spying, paused to praise the employees of the NSA, who must be fed up with being compared to the Stasi, and then suggested what new rules ought to look like. As yet the proposals are a bit vague and some will be hard to implement, but the speech was an unusually open primer on how America should spy.