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Friends, Neighbors, and Big Brother

President Barack Obama spent much of last Friday trying to reassure the country it is not living under the watchful eye of Big Brother in a high-tech police state, but despite his best efforts we can’t quite shake some nagging suspicions.
Just the very fact that a president felt compelled to offer such reassurances is discomfiting enough, as it was when Nixon thought it necessary to explain that he was not a crook, but there were other troubling aspects to Obama’s lengthy oration on the National Security Agency’s surveillance and data-gathering operations. There are several questions to be raised about the rather modest reforms that the president announced, which mostly amount to continuing all the agency’s data-gathering about Americans’ phone and internet use but storing it with another entity of unknown reliability and accountability, yet there was something about the very tone of the speech that was even more troubling.
The president began with a brief but adulatory history of American intelligence operations from the Revolutionary War through Harry Truman’s founding of the NSA, an epoch he has never expressed much admiration for on any previous occasion, then sought to appeal to his political base of aging hippie radicals with horror stories about the domestic spying of the ‘60s, at which point he suddenly sounded far more sincere, and he spent the rest of it trying to strike a chord incorporating both dissonant notes. With the same exasperated smile one might use on a pouting child, Obama added that “After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors and our friends.” We live in a dangerous world that requires the vigilant efforts of a vast national security apparatus, Obama explained, but he was quick to let his supporters know that he hadn’t gone all J. Edgar Hoover on them by touting the layers of law and regulation that will prevent it front intruding on the private lives and political activities of individuals. He noted that the nation has “benefited from both our Constitution and tradition of limited government,” and that “our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power.”
Coming from a president whose entire career has been devoted to the unlimited growth of government power, has frequently waived key provisions of the laws he himself signed, made recess appointments while Congress was not in recess, flouted the constitution on various other occasions, and has recently declared his intention to act “with or without Congress,” this is not entirely convincing. Coming from a president who also promised that if you like your health care plan you can keep it, that the deadly attacks on America’s consulate in Benghazi were a spontaneous reaction to an obscure internet video, and that just his nomination to the office of the presidency would begin to heal the planet and lower the sea levels, and who offered his good intentions as proof of all these absurd claims, it is especially hard to believe.
Those aging hippie radicals can be confident that Obama won’t use the data being collected by the NSA to quash their protests against the Vietnam War or capitalism, but anyone whose political opinions aren’t so neatly aligned with Obama’s can be forgiven a doubt. Those who have lately been audited by the IRS or attracted more than usual attention of the regulatory agencies overseeing their business can even be forgiven if they think it’s all bunk.

— Bud Norman

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