Obama Likes Secrets, Including Yours

The surprising thing about the Supreme Court's decision on police searches of cell phones was its unanimity.

John RobertsSteve Petteway / Wikimedia CommonsThe surprising thing about the Supreme Court's decision on police searches of cell phones was its unanimity. Aligned on the same side of a major law enforcement issue were liberal and conservative justices who normally fight like cats and dogs. All agreed that it's intolerable to let cops ransack the voluminous contents of mobile phones.

Who could disagree? Well, cops, of course. And the Obama administration.

Barack Obama led Americans to believe that he would be far more sensitive to privacy and civil liberties than George W. Bush. But more often than not, he reflexively indulges the demands of law enforcement agencies—and, for that matter, all agencies. In clashes between government and the individual, the president almost invariably sides with the former.

In this case, the Justice Department took the view that a cellphone is just another object a person may carry, no different from a roll of mints. It was a view that drew scorn from Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote, "That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon."

The government's resounding defeat brings to mind one Roberts experience when he was still arguing before the court as a lawyer. After losing a case, his client asked why the vote was 9-0. "Well," answered Roberts, "because there are only nine justices."

The rebuke ought to give the Justice Department pause. "When you can't get Samuel Alito to vote with you on a police case, you've lost all sense of proportion," George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told me.

It may be standard procedure for the department to side with cops when their practices are challenged. But it's not always wise—and besides, when did candidate Obama ever promise to dutifully uphold the status quo, right or wrong?

The administration took a similarly cramped attitude in another case where the cops wanted free rein to investigate your habits. It argued that police should be free to attach GPS monitoring devices to cars without a warrant, because that doesn't constitute a search.

During oral arguments, Roberts asked whether Supreme Court justices would be covered by that policy: "You think there would also not be a search if you put a GPS device on all our cars, monitored our movements for a month? You think you're entitled to do that under your theory?" Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben affirmed the point.

As a candidate, Obama vowed to "strengthen privacy protections for the digital age" and "hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy." It came as a shock to learn that throughout his time in office, the National Security Agency has been collecting vast amounts of data about people who have done nothing wrong.

After Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing the program, Obama announced some reforms. But those never would have happened had he succeeded in keeping it secret from the American people.

Informing them seems to be the last thing Obama wants to do. His Justice Department has shown a special zeal for investigating and prosecuting government employees who leak secrets to the news media. In one probe, it even went after the phone records of more than 100 Associated Press reporters and editors. Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States 46th in the world in press freedom—compared to 36th in 2008, under Bush.

First Amendment lawyer James Goodale, who defended The New York Times when Richard Nixon tried to stop it from publishing the Pentagon Papers and served as chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote last year that Obama "is fast becoming the worst national security press president ever."

Secrecy comes naturally to this administration. Obama's claim to have run "the most transparent administration in history" deserves a place in the Smithsonian Institution next to Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner. The Associated Press recently reported that this administration denies Freedom of Information Act requests for alleged national security reasons twice as often as its predecessor.

The Justice Department spent years rejecting demands that it disclose its legal rationale for vaporizing a U.S. citizen in Yemen with a drone strike. It lost that fight in court too. But Americans had to wait four years to find out how to stay off the kill list.

This administration has a simple philosophy: The government has the right to know everything about you, and you have the right to know squat about the government.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    A constitutional scholar like the president knows that cell phones weren't even invented the time the Founders put that document together so of course they're not protected from searches.

  • WTF||

    Of course, anything that wasn't invented at the time the constitution was written isn't protected. Everyone knows that, Fist.

  • db||

    Which is why common sense national bicycle control and confiscation legislation is the right thing to do.

  • Live Free Or Diet||

    I mean, who needs a high capacity assault bike with a thing that goes up?

  • Free Society||

    Assault bikes will be defined as any bike with 2 or more of the following characteristics; 1) Handle bar 2) Tactical headlights 3) Assault Mirror 4) Horn 5) Bell

  • Doctor Whom||

    Obama is a brilliant Constitutional scholar. That's what my Obot Facebook friends keep telling me. It's shocking that the justices (including those whom he appointed) are so shockingly ignorant of the Constitution that they so often disagree with him.

  • Atanarjuat||

    As a candidate, Obama vowed to "strengthen privacy protections for the digital age" and "hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy." It came as a shock to learn that throughout his time in office, the National Security Agency has been collecting vast amounts of data about people who have done nothing wrong.

    Well, it came as a shock to all of those people who take politicians' promises at face value.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    It's a "shock" to most of Chapman's audience in Chicago. But not really.

  • Free Society||

    It came as a shock to Chapman, whose total lack of intuition, foresight and logic led him to endorse Obama for president, twice, if I'm not mistaken.

  • db||

    As a candidate, Obama vowed to "strengthen privacy protections for the digital age" and "hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy." It came as a shock to no one to learn that throughout his time in office, the National Security Agency has been collecting vast amounts of data about people who have done nothing wrong.
    After Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing the program, Obama announced some feel-good, ineffective pseudo-reforms. But those never would have happened had he succeeded in keeping it secret from the American people.
  • Rich||

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated", biotches!

  • Lord Humungus||

    Y'all know that the terrorists are going to win, especially if the cops can't search your phone freely during a traffic stop. Why do you support terrorists, you freedom hating radicals?!

  • Lord Humungus||

    *eats Freedom Fries while stroking his tear-filled bald eagle*

  • Doctor Whom||

    If only one life is saved, it will all have been worth it. After all, the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

  • Steve G||

    Eh, who needs the phone when they can take our bloodz!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Eh, who needs the phone when they can take our bloodz!

    They can take our Cripz too.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote, "That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon."

    Hey, cut it out with the Islamophobia, Roberts!

  • sarcasmic||

    This ruling means absolutely nothing. The cops will just lie and say the person gave consent, or they'll search the phone and then get a warrant after the fact. Even if it's caught on camera, the judge will side with the cops.

  • Lord Humungus||

    sadly ^this^

  • brokedownpalace||

    This is why you use a password/lock screen.

  • sarcasmic||

    I have a dumb phone, so it doesn't much matter to me. All they'd find on my phone is that I talk to my wife and mother a lot. Big fat hairy deal.

  • bassjoe||

    Regardless, I wouldn't want the cops knowing that. It's none of their damn business.

  • sarcasmic||

    I agree, but at least in my case that's all they'd get. No internet history or calendar or anything like that.

  • Free Society||

    I have a dumb phone, so it doesn't much matter to me. All they'd find on my phone is that I talk to my wife and mother a lot. Big fat hairy deal.

    Your wife, or your mother?

  • sarcasmic||

    Your mom.

  • dantheserene||

    Do you keep this boilerplate saved in notepad, or do you type it up fresh for every positive ruling?

  • sarcasmic||

    Your what hurts?

  • Chumby||

    Thankfully, cops can still shoot dogs while trespassing and grenade toddlers.

  • sarcasmic||

    That dog didn't obey an order so it deserved to be shot, and that toddler should have known better than to sleep at a known drug dealer's house! Bigorati!

  • John||

    Its too bad we don't have a more muscular Congress. To me, this position is grounds to impeach the Solicitor General. There is just no excuse for the government to have taken it.

  • Free Society||

    Too bad there's people in existence pushing for a muscular government at all.

  • Number 2||

    "It may be standard procedure for the department to side with cops when their practices are challenged. But it's not always wise—and besides, when did candidate Obama ever promise to dutifully uphold the status quo, right or wrong?"

    Isn't this the same Obama who, a year ago, refused to defend Section 3 of DOMA because his crack Hope and Change Legal Team allegedly couldn't think of a single legitimate argument in its defense? (Note: although Section 3 of DOMA was struck down, it was by a 5-4 vote).

    Yet somehow that same Obama and that same crack legal team could bring themselves to argue "that a cellphone is just another object a person may carry, no different from a roll of mints," an argument so preposterous that even his own appointees rejected it, and caused John "Avoid Constitutional Arguments at All Cost" Roberts to openly sneer at them.

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