Meet Candidate Obama, Surveillance State Skeptic


credit: tonx / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Remember when President Obama used to be critical of government surveillance? Since the revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting data on phone calls for every Verizon subscriber in the country and working with Internet companies to collect online communications data, Obama has been on the defensive: The newly revealed programs represent "modest encroachments on privacy," he said last week, and are "worth us doing" to protect the nation. And his administration has been aggressively pursuing an investigation of former CIA employee Edward Snowden, who has claimed responsibility for the leak.

But before he was president, Obama was far more skeptical of large-scale government surveillance programs—and promised to encourage whistleblowers to abuses of federal power.

In 2005, as a U.S. Senator, Obama warned that the Patriot Act, which serves as the legal foundation for some of the NSA's recently revealed activities, granted government officials worryingly expansive power to search an individual's private life without appeal or oversight. Here's what he said:

"This is legislation that puts our own Justice Department above the law….If someone wants to know why their own government has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document, through the library books that you read, through the phone calls that you made, the emails that you sent, this legislation gives people no rights to appeal the need for such a search in a court of law. No judge will hear your plea. No jury will hear your case. This is just plain wrong….Giving law enforcement the tools that they need to investigate suspicious activities is one thing. And it's the right thing. But doing it without any real oversight seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans, and the ideals America stands for."

In 2007, while running for president, Obama continued to be deeply critical of the Bush administration's approach to surveillance and civil liberties, saying that "this Administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not." Here's how he led up to that statement: 

"This Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are."

Here's the full statement, which includes a defense of the FISA court process that approved the NSA's collection of Verizon call data: 

After Obama was elected, his transition website, Change.gov, came out in defense of government whistleblowers—and even promised to encourage their efforts:

Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.

Obama admits that he's become less skeptical of the programs since taking office. "I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs," he said last week. "In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we've struck the right balance."

Edward Snowden apparently doesn't think so. One of the interesting things about The Guardian's feature on Snowden is that the whistleblower portrays himself as disillusioned with President Obama, framing his leaks as a response to a growing belief that, despite the president's campaign promises, Obama wouldn't change the way the federal government's surveillance programs worked. The feature reports that Snowden had been uncomfortable with the government's secret surveillance tactics for a long time. But "the election of Obama in 2008 gave him hope that there would be real reforms, rendering disclosures unnecessary." That's not what happened. Instead, Snowden told the paper, he "watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I though would be reined in." As a result, Snowden says, he grew "hardened." And eventually he decided to take action himself.

Ironically enough, Obama practically predicted that something like this might happen in an October 2001 interview. In a public television interview as an Illinois State Sen., Obama said that he was more worried about civil liberties encroachments that apply "selectively" to specific individuals or groups. "When they apply to everybody," he said, "there tends to be sort of a majoritarian check. When we come to the wiretap provisions for example if those laws start encroaching too much on people's privacy the average person, me, Joe, everybody starts griping and complaining." Indeed. 

(Reason's Matthew Feeney noted last Friday that on NSA spying, Sen. Obama would have disagreed with President Obama.) 

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  1. Well, yeah, sure, everything he does now is going to seem hypocritical if you compare it with his past statements.

    1. Racist!

  2. Yeah I already met him, wasn’t real impressed the first time.

  3. But he’s learned so much more about it since then!

    1. It seems like someone owes Dubya a HUGE apology.

      1. No kidding, as does a huge chunk of the electorate.

  4. “No judge will hear your plea. No jury will hear your case.”

    Mission Accomplished!

  5. “No judge will hear your plea. No jury will hear your case.”

    Mission Accomplished!

  6. “In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

    But we can’t trust you to make that choice, so sit down and shut up, citizen. What a piece of shit.

    1. but when you actually look at the details…

      I’m assuming he’s referring to the details that would be 90% redacted if we were ever shown them.

  7. Let’s see: Obama says whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear at a given time. Sounds like a politician to me.

  8. The President is an even more mendacious fuck than the norm for a politican. That’s saying something. He’s a new, special kind of fuck, more awful, terrible and loathsome than those who’ve come before. Evolution of the species.

    1. Agreed.

      “That means more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. More national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. More tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. More ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is exactly who we are.”


    2. Just by himself, I think he’s about as slimy as many other politicians.

      The annoying part is he has more true believers and pro bono spin masters than most recent politicians.

      1. Not only that, but it’s the smugness of his true believers. They are all smart, informed, far-sighted, “reality-based,” and pure of heart. Their opponents are racist and sexist bigots who watch Faux News and want orphans to starve in the streets.

  9. Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but even if President Liberty wanted to shut these programs down, could he? Is this directly under the purview of the Executive? What I’m wondering is, weren’t these programs created (or authorised) by legislation, and so need legislation (ie Congress) to shut down?

    /confused foreigner

    1. No. The president could end them tomorrow. To stop a future president from starting them up again, the legislation would have to be repealed.

      1. Ah, understood. Thanks.

      2. Caveat that the President / Executive Branch would still be legally required to find something to spend the appropriated money on that fit the original appropriations legislation (ever since the post Watergate Congress banned Presidential impoundment), but that’s a fairly easy bar to meet.

      3. To stop a future president from starting them up again, the legislation would have to be repealed.

        Um, isn’t there already legislation to prevent the use of the IRS for partisan political purposes? That didn’t help much. And I am seriously worried that the NSA may have been used in similar ways.

  10. All of Obama’s persistent supporters understand that he doesn’t really mean anything he says.

    And those supporters think honesty and integrity are for religious people, rednecks, and retards.

    They don’t care if Obama lies. They don’t care if Obama only tells the truth by accident.

    1. Principles are for losers. True winners will do what it takes. Obama is a winner.

      1. Yeah, telling the truth is seen as kinda rednecky. Like NASCAR.

        When Obama’s supporters hear people criticize him for lying, they think whomever’s doing the criticizing is naive or an idiot.

        It’s not just that they expect him to lie. They want him to lie so that he can stay in power and do more stuff…that he said he would never do.

        There were gay rights activists who worked to get Obama elected even though he came out officially against gay marriage. Why would they do that?

        They knew he didn’t mean any of it, that’s why.

        Obama’s not coming after your guns, stupid! He even said he’s not! You’re so stupid!

  11. You mean, “meet candidate Obama, liar and Chicago machine politician.”

    Is anyone really surprised?

    1. I guess I find myself being surprised that I am still surprised.

  12. It’s worrisome that someone who was critical of these programs is now supportive of them after attaining higher office. Maybe I’m just being paranoid or giving young obama too much credit, but stuff like this sounds more like a men behind the curtain situation than a power corrupts situation. (in other words obama may not have really changed his view but has to go along with the top people to stay safe)

    1. The other possibility is that he was willing to say whatever he thought was likely to help him get elected.

      He stonewalled on gay marriage, too. I happen to support gay marriage, but But up until about a year ago, Barack Obama was officially opposed to gay marriage…

      Again, that’s just a case of candidate Obama saying whatever the hell he thought would help him get elected, and once he thought flip flopping on the issue would help him get reelected, he went the other way.

      He didn’t mean what he said then, and he doesn’t mean anything he says now. He says it for effect–not because he believes it.

      1. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. He could have been politicking in the gay marriage case and I’m inclined to agree with you that he did. But he seemed pretty firmly against these programs before, I hope you’re right though.

        thought experiment, what if Rand Paul were elected and all of a sudden he decided that the security state wasn’t all that bad, at that point would you think that were some people behind the scenes who really run things?

      2. If you look at his entire career, he’s essentially never stood up to his surrounding peer group. I thought it obvious in 2007 that he’d be an Establishment man all the way.

        It’s easy to be against things when it’s the other side doing it.

    2. Obama’s worldview is what it has always been. Nothing he has said or written ever hints at being pro-liberty or wanting to scale back the power of govt.

      One reason libertarianism fares poorly on a broader scale is that politicians never run with the intent of limiting their own power.

    3. Or, not quite as sinisterly, a Yes, Minister situation where the civil service makes sure that the President has enough information to go along with what the civil service thinks is appropriate, and otherwise tries to keep the President occupied with political business so he doesn’t have time to think about actually running things.

  13. Back in the 90s I bought a fairly high end handheld bearcat scanner that went up into the 900mhz range which, at the time, could pick up analog cell phones.

    Shortly after that the government banned scanners which hit those frequencies because the government didn’t want people listening to other people’s phone calls.

    Funny that.

    1. Shortly after that the government banned scanners which hit those frequencies because the government didn’t want people anyone but them listening to other people’s phone calls.


      1. When the government says “anyone” or “no one” or “everyone”, it is presumed there’s a special legislative exception carved out for them.

  14. The former U.S. intelligence officers, though, compared Snowden with William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell, two NSA cryptologists who defected to the Soviet Union on June 25, 1960. Both held a press conference at the time where they disclosed U.S. spying programs from Moscow.


    Those “former US intelligence officers” unintentionally raise a fun question: was the Martin and Mitchell leak so bad because it got people killed or was it just really really embarrasing for the tuffgai ego strokers in the intelligence community?

  15. Is the NSA collecting data on alt-text?

  16. The government did all this spying, and they still couldn’t stop the Boston bombers. If you can’t act on information and warnings given to you (no spying necessary) by foreign states, then it’s game over.

    1. and if the govt had rounded up the brothers pre-emptively, what would the commentariat here have said about that?

      1. Depends on what you mean by “rounded up”. If they arrested them on probable cause of committing a crime, it would depend on what they had to offer in the way of incriminating evidence. Legitimate arrests (presuming a legitimate state) do exist, and I’m not sure we could predict precisely how the commentariat would react, because I don’t think we could predict in what manner the government would have (if they could have) detained or apprehended the brothers before they set the bomb off.

        Really, this sort of question presumes that the government has the capability to preempt criminal acts if they simply have enough information and latitude. I’m not sure that’s true, and even if it is I wouldn’t want to live in the society whose government has the power necessary to do so.

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