NSA is A-OK or, Top 4 Apologias for Obama the Cyber-Stalker in Chief!


So the president—avatar of most audacity, hope, and the transparentist administration since the introduction of Windex!—likes to watch. All of us. Or maybe just keep tabs on what we're up to.

Take a hike Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, David Hemmings in Blow-up, and Craig Wasson (yes, that Craig Wasson) in Body Double!

There's a new voyeur in town and his name is Barack Obama.

Given that Candidate Obama was, er, a bit ticked off at the Bush administration's Gladys Kravitz nosy-neighbor routine, what are supporters of the president supposed to do? One of a few things.

First, deny that there's really anything new or important here. Don't you know, this has been going on for years now, like since at least the George W. Bush years, and nobody cared then (coff, coff), so it's no real big thing, right?

"Stop freaking out about the NSA," counsels Slate's William Saletan. In quick order, Saletan notes, that "It isn't wiretapping" (who said it was?); "It's judicially supervised" (True, by a rubber-stamp FISA court); "It's congressionally supervised" (eh, that's a stretch, with the admin kinda-sorta telling Congress what it's up to); "It expires quickly unless it's reauthorized" (which is exactly what seems to have been happening over the past several years, enough to suggest constant vacuuming up on phone records is the new normal). Oh yeah, and "Wiretaps would require further court orders" (see first point and understand now that we are defining troubling surveillance now only as wiretaps apparently). While Congress authorized and expanded the FISA rules (they are a cowardly herd, after all), anyone who thinks that national intelligence apparatuses actually disclose what they're up to Congress should read Timothy Weiner's essential history of the FBI or check out some Church Committee hearings for something other than mid-1970s sideburns.

Second, blur the distinction between voluntary disclosures of your information and government surveillance. Also at Slate (hmm…the same outfit whose staff voted overwhelmingly for Obama), Amy Webb says chill because "You're sharing your private data with corporations and governments all the time." What's the fuss, she argues, "By definition, you're surrendering your privacy by using your phone." Really? There's no meaningful distinction to be drawn between, I don't know, checking in on Four Square (if anyone still does that) or making a phone call and the government routinely collecting millions of phone records? Especially under the pretense that this is done to keep tabs on foreign agents and non-citizens who may be looking to blow us up? The F in FISA stands for foreign, not domestic. Facebook, Twitter, the NSA—it's all the same, isn't it? They all have equal power to declare you an enemy combatant and throw you in prison, after all. (For a primer on some very basic distinctions between data gathering between public and private sources, read Reason's classic 2004 cover story, "Database Nation: The upside of 'zero privacy,'" by Declan McCullagh.)

Third, blame the subjects of investigation and surveillance. The purest instance of this ploy comes courtesy of The New Republic during the early days of the IRS scandal. Recall briefly that even President Obama has acknowledged that groups of a conservative bent were subjected to politicized scrutiny that Obama called "unacceptable" and "intolerable." But come on, said Noam Scheiber, these right-wing nutjobs wanted to be scrutinized—they have a political persecution complex that's a "neurosis" (his word). Noting that 501(c)4 groups don't technically have to file for tax-exempt status with the IRS—they can simply assert it and hope to pass muster if there's an audit—Noam Scheiber argued, "The targeting was effectively done by the conservative groups themselves, when they filed their gratuitous applications." What bold, fresh thinking from a magazine now owned by a Facebook founder.

Fourth, minimize even your righteous outrage after you first blow your stack. Yesterday, The New York Times channeled its inner Popeye, muttered "that's all I can takes, I can't takes no more," and editorialized flatly:

…the administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.

Not long after that sharply worded rebuke saw the light of the Web, it was amended thus:

The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue.

As Reason's J.D. Tuccille noted when first spying the revision (emphasis added), "No mention of the change has been added to the editorial."

But then, that's what the Interweb is for, right? Check out newsdiff for a track-changes record of the fixes. Hey, New York Times, you're sharing your private information simply by living and breathing in this world, aren't you?