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By Fareed Zakaria
President Barack Obama gave a much-anticipated speech on Friday outlining reforms in the American government cyber surveillance activities. But before I give you my reaction to the speech, I want to give you some context.
The American government and many U.S. companies are routinely the targets of cyber attacks from all over the world. The National Nuclear Security Administration, for example, which is an arm of the Energy Department and monitors America’s nuclear power plants, has reportedly been the target of 10 million cyber attacks a day. In contrast, the entire United Kingdom suffered 44 million cyber attacks in 2011.
Some of these are efforts to spy on America, enter into telecommunication systems, steal secrets from the government and private companies. Others are efforts to disrupt normal life or kill civilians. Last year, the head of the FBI testified that cyber attacks from foreign sources, often including terrorist groups, had surpassed traditional terrorism as the single most worrisome threat to the United States.
Why am I pointing all this out? I'm trying to remind you that this debate about American policy cannot take place in a vacuum. There are other countries out there, and groups of militants and terrorists, and they are actively using whatever cyber tools they have to tap into phone systems, emails, bank records, power plant operation systems, nuclear facilities, and more.
In that context, President Obama has taken on a worthy task, to see if the American intelligence establishment has gotten out of control as it deals with the threats and challenges out there. His speech suggests that the answer is no, the National Security Agency is not a rogue outfit.
But he acknowledged that two facts need to be kept in mind. First, that the United States has unique capabilities in this area and second, that after 9/11, the American government went too far in its efforts to search for and counter terrorist threats.
So he's proposed a series of reforms that strike me as a good balance between security and liberty. He has preserved the basic structure of American intelligence gathering while putting in more checks and safeguards. One case where he may have gone too far is in limiting America's spying on foreign leaders. This was probably inevitable and a political sop to foreign heads of government like Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It's a good idea for the United States to protect civil liberties, institute checks and balances, and have periodic reviews of the whole system. But let's also keep in mind that I haven't heard much about Chinese President Xi Jinping's intelligence reform proposals, and I don't expect we will be hearing much from him, or Russian President Vladimir Putin or many other leaders.
It's called the world's second oldest profession for a reason.
You can watch this take, and also Fareed’s interview with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.