Civil Liberties

Obama: Champion of the Surveillance State

From a critic of the Patriot Act to its defender, it's been quite a transformation.


On Friday, more than seven months after he professed to "welcome this debate" over National Security Agency spying, kicked off by whistleblower Edward Snowden, President Obama finally got around to debating. His speech at the Justice Department was a tour-de-force of petulance, dissembling, and phony piety about civil liberties.

The president is at least as fond of passive constructions as Chris "Mistakes Were Made" Christie. "Too often," Obama said, "new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate." But before the Snowden revelations, the American public didn't know that the administration considered all Americans' call records "relevant" to terrorism investigations under section 215 of the Patriot Act—and Obama liked it that way.

Still, Obama pointed out, his review group on NSA surveillance found "no indication that this database has been intentionally abused." Nor did it find any evidence that the program had been particularly useful. As the group's report, issued in December, put it, information derived from bulk collection "was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner" through other means.

The same goes for the president's signature example of the 215 program's hypothetical usefulness, which had been debunked by a review group member even before the speech. Had the program been in place, Obama implied, we might have caught a 9/11 hijacker who called an al Qaeda safehouse we were monitoring in Yemen. But as group member Richard Clarke told ProPublica, NSA didn't need a call records database "to get the information they needed"—that was available through a traditional FISA warrant.

The 215 program, Obama insisted, "does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of people making calls." The latter point is comforting only if you're gullible enough to believe that the NSA has never heard of reverse telephone directories.

Moreover, there's no "sharp distinction" between content and metadata. That's what another member of the president's hand-picked review group told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing last week. "There is quite a bit of content in metadata," according to group member Michael Morell: "When you have the records of phone calls that a particular individual made, you can learn an awful lot about that person."

Indeed, the 215 program is nothing less than "a federal human relations database," as Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has put it. That potential treasure trove of personal intelligence is dangerous and unnecessary, even if it's housed with a third party, as the president proposed.

In the speech, Obama congratulated himself for maintaining a "healthy skepticism towards our surveillance programs," noting that "as a senator, I was critical" of various NSA practices.

Yet he's never been one to let his scruples cramp his ambitions. As a Senate candidate, he'd called the Patriot Act "shoddy and dangerous;" as a senator running for president, Obama declaimed, "No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime." On Friday, it was, "greater oversight on the use of these letters may be appropriate." Barry, we hardly knew ye.

In a legacy-polishing interview with the New Yorker's David Remnick last week, Obama spoke dismissively of "a public imagination that sees Big Brother looming everywhere." The president didn't feel "any ambivalence" about the decisions he'd made on NSA spying, but admitted that he might not "welcome this debate" as much as he's previously let on: "the benefit of the debate [Snowden] generated was not worth the damage done."

In private, Obama's aides report that the president was "angry" about the Snowden revelations, denouncing the leaker as "a self-important narcissist who had not thought through the consequences of his actions." There's a lot of that going around.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.