The Surveillance State Lives

In sizing up Obama's "reforms" of the indiscriminate gathering of data on every American, remember this: Politicians will do everything they can get away with in pursuit of their own agenda.


President Obama has some nerve. He opened his speech on NSA spying by likening his surveillance regime to Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty. How insulting! They were helping people resist government tyranny, and the British spied on them to put down the coming rebellion.

In sizing up Obama's "reforms" of the indiscriminate gathering of data on every American, remember this: Politicians will do everything they can get away with in pursuit of their own agenda. To them, liberty and privacy are unimportant, things to be gotten around with the minimum of public attention. Should the public get wind of some untoward thing the politicians are up to — as it did, thanks to Edward Snowden — they will put on a public-relations show to lull the people back to sleep, enabling the state once again to go about its unsavory business unobserved.

That is what's happening here. As Glenn Greenwald aptly put it, Obama's "defining value to the permanent power factions that run Washington" is that he "prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in meaningful ways. He's not an agent of change but the soothing branding packaging for it."

Thus, the appropriate attitude toward the so-called reforms is deep skepticism. You want evidence? Obama expressed confidence "in the integrity of those who lead our intelligence community." He has apparently forgotten that the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told a boldfaced lie to a Senate committee when he said "No, sir" to this question from Sen. Ron Wyden: "Does the [NSA] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" (Clapper later explained that this was the "least untruthful" answer he could give.) Obama's spokesman said the president "certainly believes that Director Clapper has been straight and direct in the answers he's given."

Obama's own veracity must also be questioned. In his speech he said that when he was a senator he was critical of the George W. Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping. But if that's true, why did he vote for the 2008 FISA law, which, as Greenwald notes, "legalized the bulk of the once-illegal Bush program"?

To the extent Obama has become more favorable to surveillance since the Bush years it's apparently because, as a former aide told the New York Times, "he trusts himself to use these powers more than he did the Bush administration."

In light of this flagrant disregard for the truth and willingness to bamboozle the people, why should anyone take Obama's "reforms" seriously? He promises mostly executive-branch safeguards — created by Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder — but in the end, this will be little more than window dressing to regain public trust. There are always emergency escape clauses.

To be sure, Obama is clever. He says,

Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached. Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends on the law to constrain those in power.

But "the law" can't constrain those in power, because the law is always interpreted and enforced — or not enforced — by those very people in power. Ultimately, government officials define their own powers. Checks and balances mean that one part of the state monitors another part. It's hard to muster confidence in such a weak safeguard.

Obama says we need surveillance to protect us from terrorists. But we could be safe without having our freedoms trampled if the government would stop committing and enabling oppression in foreign countries, thus creating the desire for revenge against Americans.

Freedom and security require no trade-off, because genuine freedom includes security against government snooping. Obama asks for trust, but we have too much experience to grant him his wish. Yet even if government officials had pure motives, they still should not be trusted with the power to spy.

This column originally appeared on the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. "Deep skepticism." I would love to get up to that point. I simply don't believe a single word of what the president has said. Why would I? He and his underlings have lied their asses off on their various and continuing violations of our fundamental rights.

    Any reforms will be nothing more than window-dressing, and even that will be regularly ignored in the interests of "national security," which includes things like getting re-elected or whatever.

  2. Anyone who believes a word that comes out of Obama's mouth deserves everything they get.

    1. They've only lied about everything else. Surely, this time we can believe them.

      1. Statistically, a truth must somehow emerge from his mouth. I mean, it's not like he's a good liar.

    2. Obama, the Constitution law prof, has been on record for stating his advocacy of positive rights. Take him at his word for that, be wary of all else.

      1. adjunct...


    This story should be a huge deal, but sadly it probably won't be. If the NSA can listen to everything and then use that information to provide tips to law enforcement, we no longer have a 4th Amendment.

    More importantly, the fact that the NSA is giving tips to law enforcement shows how there is no way that this sort of spying could ever be controlled. Once you collect the information, how can the NSA not share it? Suppose the NSA is busily collecting all of this information protecting us from the terrorists and stumbles on a man plotting to kill his wife. Does the NSA not share that information and let the wife die? I can't see how it is any way realistic to expect the NSA to sit on the information and watch the woman be murdered. And once they turn that information over, where does it end? It doesn't. Once you establish the principle that the NSA has a duty to turn over information about criminal activity it stumbles upon, then it will turn over such information relating to every crime. The only way to stop that is to not let them collect the information in the first place. It is not realistic to think that the government, once it has collected information, will only use it one way.

    1. You've just described the bones of the basic plot behind Person of Interest, John.

      1. Am I just paranoid or is that entire show one giant propaganda tool for the surveillance state? I have never watched it and didn't realize that was the plot.

        1. No, it's actually anti-surveillance-state. The creator of the machine regrets having built it and given it to the government, as they won't use it in the way that it should be used (saving people) and instead will abuse it. It even explores (a little bit) whether having it at all is a good thing.

          It's not the best show ever but it's not bad.

          1. Ah okay. I might check it out. You can't compartmentalize the government. If any agency has information, the rest of the government effectively has it too. This collection creates all sorts of dilemmas for the government from stopping crime, to giving Brady evidence to defendants, down to preventing fraud. Anyone who honestly thinks that letting the NSA collect this information won't eventually lead to the end of the 4th Amendment is an unbelievable moron.

            1. I imagine they would beg to differ in that they are completely believable morons.

          2. Last weeks episode had a big push on the "has this made things better?" question, but I don't know that it was resolved at all. There were also some Silk Road and Bitcoin references thrown in.

            1. Almost Human had a Bitcoin reference, this last week, also.

        2. I think they were surprised at how close to the mark they were when the Snowden leaks came out.

          Or they feigned surprise...the plot thickens!

          1. Here's where the government is on search and seizure and self-incrimination right now: If it's in digital form, it's totally and magically unprotected, even if the information in question is precisely of the same ilk as information in paper form that's historically been protected.

            1. persons, houses, papers, and effects

              Those electrons, they're not effects. You can't own them.

              1. Yes, it's TOTALLY different!

                Perhaps the same perspective applies to classified documents? Oh, so sorry, if they're digital, they're free like little birds.

    2. Please send this comment to Bob Poole every time he flashes his mileage based vehicle tolling boner in public.

      1. Libertarians who should know better but still support mileage based vehicle tolling are a good example of letting your commitment to magic words like "efficiency" cause you to support really stupid and destructive things. Efficient and fair user fees and tax policy is a societal good. But it is not a bedrock principle. If achieving that means violating real bedrock principles like privacy, you don't do it. I really have no patience with people who can't see that. Fuck Poole and people like him and their dreams of the perfect tax structure. I am not giving up my privacy to achieve it.

        1. I don't think you need to worry. It is only a matter of time before governments realize that they can use license plate cams instead of investing in the transponder system and it's voluntary aspects. completely passive tracking is where this is going.

          If you went to a mileage based fee system I might not oppose it but tracking my movements for the purpose of tracking me isn't going to cut it.

          And his double taxation arguments are ludicrous. My income taxes are supposed to support the federal government, its programs and responsibilities. Further taxing me for fuel, usage etc is double taxation.

    3. They let the Boston Marathon bombers go ahead with their plot, without telling anyone (after being warned by the Russians, no less) - why would they not let a man murder his wife?

      1. Don't you know the Russians are our greatest geopolitical threat?

  4. A better headline would be "Sheldon Says Surveillance State Survives."

  5. Suffering insult has become a way of life in the former land of liberty.

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