As much as we love to see the Obama administration bogged down in yet another scandal, we’re not yet sure what to make of the recent disclosures about the National Security Agency’s internet and phone monitoring program. On the one hand it all seems to be legal, with congressional and judicial oversight, and there is thus far no evidence that any of the information gathered has been used for any nefarious purpose. On the other hand the program does seem unsettlingly Orwellian in its newly broad reach, and Congress and the courts have not been the most reliable guardians of liberty lately, and it does seem to hand a lot of information over to a government that has been rather ruthless in its dealings with political opponents.
The president took time out during a trip to California to tell reporters that he’s “happy” to have a debate about the program, and it should prove interesting. On one side you will find Sen. Barack Obama, the presidential candidate of ’07 who decried the Bush administration’s fledgling program as a dire threat to the freedom of ordinary Americans, frowning with his trademark indignation as he scolded “That’s not who we are.” On the other side is President Barack Obama, who has expanded the Bush policy “exponentially” according to the Washington Post, scoffing at the notion there’s any reason for concern about a government snooping through the phone and internet records of ordinary citizens and assuring the public that “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.”
When asked about it by a suddenly feisty press corps, the president modestly conceded some inconsistency in his positions and explained that his past “healthy skepticism” about the program had given way to a realization that its benefits outweighed the “modest encroachment on privacy.” Waxing pragmatic, he further explained that “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” Candidate Obama was once again indignant in his rebuttal, holding his chin high as he intoned that “This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the securities we provide.”
Whatever the merits of the debate, it’s nice to see that Obama’s change of mind is being widely noted and frequently ridiculed by the media. A reporter at ABC News, of all places, even penned an apology letter that Obama might send to his much-maligned predecessor. If the president bothers to have another press conference soon he might also be asked how the program squares with his recent announcement that the government’s efforts against terrorism are winding down, because “That’s what democracy demands,” and the response should provide further fodder for satire. A bold reporter might even ask why they’re poring through the records of people there is no reason to suspect while ignoring a foreign government’s warning about the Boston Marathon bombers, but that would be too much to ask for.
Much of the left, including the fellow who revealed the program’s broad reach, seems to have decided they liked Candidate Obama a lot more than President Obama, and much of the right has decided they don’t care for either incarnation. Well respected national security hawks such as John Yoo have spoken out in Obama’s defense, or at least defense of his current position, which has further enraged the left, but the libertarian wing of the conservative movement seems fully outraged. This convergence made for a fascinating spectacle on Obama’s negotiations-with-China-and-golf trip, where he was protested by both Tea Partiers and Code Pinkos, and it should make for intriguing politics.
The vast middle of the political spectrum seems a bit disconcerted by the news, as well, or at least uneasy enough to laugh at the jokes suddenly being peddled by the late night comics. Yet another revelation about some top-secret security program might have gone unnoticed in the recent past, but coming on the heels of stories about the Internal Revenue Service bullying dissident groups and the Justice Department snooping through the phone records of major news organization, and after more than five years of an administration that makes no secret of its disdain for anyone who opposes its agenda, it’s a nervous laugh that the audiences offer. This administration is determined to expand the government’s power into every realm of American, from the health care system to the energy industries to charities of the Catholic Church, and that makes it a little more worrisome that they’re also peering into the phone records and internet searches of ordinary Americans. Hearing a president of the United States assure his people that he’s not listening in on their phone conversations has the same unpleasant effect as hearing one offer an assurance that he’s not a crook.
— Bud Norman