By Jacob Sullum – President Obama claims he welcomes the public debate over government surveillance programs that track personal information about millions of innocent Americans. But if it were up to him, the debate never would have happened, since the programs would have remained secret. Furthermore, his administration is treating the whistleblower who made the debate possible as a criminal.
The truth is that Obama does not think a debate is necessary, because top government officials have already considered all the relevant points behind closed doors and arrived at the perfect formula for sacrificing privacy in the name of security. You will have to take his word for it, however, because the formula is classified.
As a presidential candidate, Obama rejected “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.” As president, he admonishes us that “you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy” because “there are some tradeoffs involved.”
Although Obama “came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” he said in June, “my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.” Things look different once your hands are on the reins of power. Suddenly safeguards aimed at protecting civil liberties don’t seem so important.
Don’t get Obama wrong. He does not mean “to suggest that you just say, ‘Trust me. We’re doing the right thing. We know who the bad guys are.’ ” If that’s what you thought he was saying, you may have his surveillance program confused with his assassination program, under which all the deadly decisions are made within the executive branch. In this case, Obama said, members of Congress are “fully briefed,” and “federal judges are overseeing the entire program.”
But according to Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a longtime ally of the president, the information shared with Congress is sketchy. “To say that there’s congressional approval suggests a level of information and oversight that’s just not there,” he told The New York Times.
What about those judges? Obama was referring to members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, who rule in secret, do not have much leeway to second-guess the administration’s demands for data, and almost never do.
Under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the basis for a leaked order requiring Verizon to provide telephone records for all of its customers, the government need only “specify” that the information it wants is “relevant” to “an investigation to protect against international terrorism.” It also has to aver that it is following guidelines approved by the attorney general and is not targeting a U.S. citizen or legal resident “solely upon the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment.”
Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the basis for the National Security Agency’s Internet-monitoring PRISM program, the government “certifies” that it is not targeting U.S. citizens, legal residents, or people located in the United States. But the government need not identify its targets, and it may “incidentally” gather information about Americans—including, according to The Washington Post, “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.”
Innocent people who are subjected to NSA snooping have no way of challenging it, or even knowing about it. Before he took up residence in the White House, Obama called that sort of unaccountable surveillance power “just plain wrong.” Now it’s a “modest encroachment” that “the American people should feel comfortable about,” even if they are not privy to the details.
Addressing Ohio State University’s 2013 graduates last May, Obama mocked people who “warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.” As he explained in another speech a month earlier, “suspicion about government” makes no sense because “the government is us.” If so, the government should be replaced, because none of us knows what we’re doing.