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Big Brother on the Verizon

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

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After the Scandals

Each of the various scandals swirling around Washington are important on their own terms, as well as a source of guilty pleasure to right-wing bastards such as ourselves, but they will also have important implications in the policy squabbles that will continue long after the accusatory headlines have faded.
The Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous targeting of conservative groups, for instance, will now figure in at least two ongoing debates. Advocates of the flat tax, the fair tax, and other simplified tax systems have always claimed their proposals would eliminate the possibility of such politicized IRS actions, among other advantages, and the argument is made stronger by the latest revelations. Critics of the Obamacare law were concerned from the outset about how it grows the size and scope of the IRS, which will be empowered to enforce the controversial individual mandate and its host of new taxes, and those critics will also become more persuasive in their attempts at repeal.
A Justice Department probe that sought a suspiciously broad range of phone records from the Associated Press will affect a broader debate about the media’s peculiar relationship with the government in much the same way. It might even affect the media’s previously adoring perception of the government, potentially having all sorts of ramifications on the next few years of politics, and it might even affect the public’s perception of the much-maligned conservative news sources. Past Justice Department scandals, ranging from the decision to let the New Black Panthers loose on voter intimidation charges and stonewalling the Fast and Furious fiasco, could also be seen in a newly harsh light.
Continuing revelations about the incompetence that led to the Benghazi tragedy and the dishonesty that followed it will similarly inform future discussions of foreign policy. Those who argue for a more frank resistance to radical Islamists, rather than the sort of cultural relativism that would appease them with the imprisonment of anyone who dares criticize their views, will surely be bolstered in their efforts.
The cumulative effect of all the scandals can only create a greater public skepticism about the government’s abilities and integrity, which in turn affects everything. Almost every political issue pits those who would expand the size, scope, and cost of government against those who would limit it to the traditional essential chores of national defense, issuing a sound currency, enforcing contracts, security the liberties of the people, and a few modest attempts at promoting the general welfare. The latter group might not prevail, but they will be energized and the scandals can only help their cause.

— Bud Norman